I’m typing this post up on a minibus in Laos as we jostle our way north to the town of Vang Vieng with 14 fellow travelers. What amazes me is the amount of stuff people are traveling with. Backpackers boarded with bags half their size, not including their hand luggage which essentially equates to a more normal-sized backpack. Our driver nearly sat on all the luggage in an attempt to get it to fit so other passengers could be accommodated. There has to be a simpler way to travel, right? There is, but it first requires a change in mindset. Once you consider yourself more of an explorer than a tourist, you can then apply some basic rules of thumb for simpler travel.
Nearly 5 years ago I stood at the base of Mount Rainier with a team anxious to claim the 14,411 foot summit. We were all learning. Our team had signed up for a week long course in mountaineering skills culminating, hopefully, in attaining the summit. By our feet were our backpacks, stuffed to the gills like our fellow travelers on this Laos minibus. We felt we could justify all our stuff by spending a week at 10,000 feet and above. Our guides proved us wrong. “Why do you have 7 pairs of socks?” our head guide asked the climber next to me, pulling out a pair of his socks still in their packaging. The climber justified, “One for each day, in case they get wet.” The guide shook his head, “You only have two feet, man. I’d dump six pairs and take some food instead. Socks won’t keep you alive.” At first I smirked, but then quickly recalled my 7 pairs of underwear. My scolding followed.
Recalling this story helped us pack for our around the world journey. As we tried to stuff things into our 40 liter bags for a year on the road, we eliminated what we thought we needed when we realized much of what gets packed is really just for our own comfort. Exploration isn’t about comfort – it’s about what you discover. Being comfortable comes second. Remember, socks won’t keep you alive. Our mindset shifted from being comfortable to exploring. Laundry would need to get done twice a month. Shirts, pants, and even underwear would get worn more than once. We wouldn’t have photos of us in “new outfits” for a full year. Sandals would be used both for hostel showers and the beach. The list goes on, but adopting this exploration mindset has enabled us to focus more on the travel experience and less about lugging our stuff. So how can you achieve simpler travel and avoid 40 pound backpacks with pillows, boots, and everything else dangling from the sides? Just follow these five basic rules for simpler travel.
Rule 1: Expect laundry
I remember how we used to travel. We’d pack all the clothes we might need into one or two bags with the intent that things would be worn once or twice and then sequestered for laundry upon return. That takes up a lot of room. First, don’t go packing a new shirt for every day of the week. Plan on three…maybe four at most. Cycle through your clothes until they just start to get that “funk” or the unfortunate encounter with pasta sauce. Then plan to wash what you have while on the road. Sinks are nearly everywhere in the world and with a sink plug and laundry soap you’ve got your own washing machine. Plus, you’ve got your own dryer by simply hanging a clothesline in your living space. If it’s time to get things super clean, you can usually find a laundromat that will turn things around for $0.50 – $1 a pound or so in a 24-hour period. Yes, our photos have us in repeat clothes since we don’t have the towering backpacks, but that is fine by us as it makes picking out our daily outfits easier. We do recommend keeping one fresh set of clothes for laundry and travel days to enjoy while you’re waiting for things to dry, get returned, or making progress to your next destination.
Rule 2: Use layers
Most travelers who are also outdoor types get this. In short, skip packing that big, bulky jacket you might use a handful of times. Instead, if colder days are ahead, pack things you can layer on top of each other for warmth/insulation. Instead of a big jacket, I’ll first pull on a t-shirt followed by a light long sleeve shirt. Still chilly? Out comes the quarter-zip long sleeve. And if my core temperature is really dropping, I do have a light fleece jacket that can top things off. The last layer, a light hooded rain jacket, comes out if wind or rain is in the forecast. So rather than large, single-use pieces of clothing, I have multiple layers at my disposal which can be used together for additional warmth or separately if that’s more suiting. And it all packs fairly compactly and works for the shoulder season itinerary we are following for our around the world travel. If it gets too cold, I’ll consider buying another layer on the road or working the itinerary so we’re exploring inside more than outside. Personally, I find that no rule helps more with achieving simpler travel than using layers.
Rule 3: Choose function over fashion
Exploring is about what you discover, right? Then does it really matter how you look? Nope. I’m not condoning complete disregard to how you may be perceived. I also understand that there may be some photos, parties, or other functions that dictate your dressing a little more for the occasion. What helps here is to follow the rule that function should be considered before fashion. For example jeans, in my opinion, are probably the worst thing one can pack if you really want simpler travel. They are heavy, take a long time to air dry, and take up a lot of space. They are made for comfort, and sometimes fashion, but not for exploring. Quick-drying clothing is your friend. It’s light weight, breathable (meaning you can even wear long pants/shirts in the tropics and not swelter completely), and can be quite comfortable too. PrAna, Marmot and REI make some of our favorite clothing that fits this rule. Long sleeves that roll up is another example of function over fashion. One shirt, multiple uses…which gets us to the fourth rule for simpler travel.
Rule 4: Get multi-use items
The biggest enemy to packing light is carrying one-off items. Shoes are a great example. Typical tennis shoes are great for a jog or casual exploring but don’t offer the support or weather protection for hiking. Leather sandals may be great for casual walking but do you want to take them in the sand at the beach? Before you know it, you’ll have 4-6 pairs of footwear and wonder where all your packing space went. For simpler travel, you need to find those items that can fill many roles. Skip the tennis shoes and go with a pair of trail runners or light hiking boots – you can face the elements, walk around comfortably, and even get away with some decent hikes with just one pair. Do you really need an alarm clock? Get a wrist watch with an alarm clock or just use your phone. One item, several uses.
Rule 5: Buy on-the-go
Our previous employer, NASA, had started increasing its focus on in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) for human exploration of Mars. Fellow colleagues began to realize that repeating Apollo-style missions would be unsustainable. Too much money, mass, and volume would go to supplies that could potentially be made from or acquired at future destinations. Essentially it’s the concept of living off the land. This kind of exploration translates well to simpler travel and especially for a journey around the world. You may have a favorite shampoo, toothpaste or deodorant and if your travel has you exploring for more than a small container might last, you may be tempted to pack more. Don’t. So far across ten countries, we’ve managed to find all the essential toiletries for fairly reasonable prices. We try to pack just enough to get us to our next major hub. Grabbing essentials on the go is easy and saves you room in your bag. Simple as that.
Following these rules will not only help you accomplish simpler travel but you can also reap other rewards. As an example you can save in checked luggage fees, and may even be able to forgo checking anything! We’re not quite there ourselves mainly due to the camera gear and electronics that enable us to keep the blog rolling, but we’re very close! Imagine eliminating the anxiety of watching the baggage carousel spin a tenth time without your bag.
And as I finish typing up this post, the individual sitting in the seat in front of us just pulled out a portable fan and small bottle of cologne while his bag takes up nearly one full seat. Is this level of comfort really needed? After six months on the road, living by the rules of simpler travel along the way, I’d argue maintaining a higher level of comfort isn’t really worth the hassle. And even if your travel doesn’t take you around the world for months on end, you’re likely to enjoy your travel experiences more when you stick to the rules. So forgo the creature comforts, explore more, follow a few rules for simpler travel, and you’ll be traveling with a smaller pack and your back will be thankful for it!