We've written before about the virtues we see in traveling light. Well, lately we've been taking that to an extreme.
Note that in all the ravings that follow, we aren't particularly serious in suggesting you try to pack a little as we do. We have a problem, and we know it. Perhaps our addiction to traveling light is getting a little out of hand.
But perhaps, just perhaps, it will get you to question your own packing list. Maybe there's something on there you don't need after all. Maybe just knowing that there's a couple of damn fool hedgehogs out there backpacking without even bringing backpacks... maybe just knowing that will be enough to convince you that you don't really need to bring that collapsible chair with you, or that portable ping-pong table.
We've always felt that the best way to get started packing for your RTW trip was to choose the smallest backpack you thought you could get away with. The two of us are firm believers in Hedgehog Rule #4, which states: "You will always fill your backpack, no matter what size it is." If you get a nice small 30L backpack (something the size of what you used to lug to high school every day), you'll fill it up completely and wish you had just a little more room. But if instead you buy that nice big 100L backpack you've had your eye on... well, you'll fill it up completely and wish you had just a little more room.
During our 18-month trip around the world (and our extra 2-week trip to Thailand a few months later), our luggage looked something like this:
As you can see, it consisted of the following:
- My backpack (a GoLite Infinity, 42L)
- Jessica's backpack (a Kelty Arrowhead 1800, 30L)
- Two small daybags (old versions of Eagle Creek Compasses, less than 2L each)
- A large toy pig (named Señor Pig)
- You can go ahead and disregard that badminton set, it was only a temporary accompaniment, and serves mostly to provide a sense of scale to the photo)
Privately, we took perhaps an unseemly amount of pride in how little stuff we were lugging around with us. It felt like pretty much every other backpacker we met had about twice as much on them! (Granted, we weren't bringing camping gear, which made a big difference.)
The purges began a few weeks into our trip. We took everything out of our bags and laid it all out on the bed. If we hadn't worn it, used it, or pulled it out since we'd left home, one of us had to make a compelling case as to why we should keep it. Bit by bit, we chipped away at the dead weight we were carrying, until we had ourselves down to what we considered the bare essentials.
Early on, we learned you can get carried away at this sort of thing. Somehow, in one of those purges I managed to convince Jessica we didn't need any of the band-aids we had with us, which necessitated a quick trip to the pharmacia a couple of weeks later when she scraped up her ankle!
So we should have seen the warning signs. When you get too obsessed with packing light, you're liable to go too far. You can wind up taking things to the extreme.
After we'd returned home from our trip (including popping back over to Thailand to adopt Belly), we put our backpacks into "retirement." Because we were starting to get a feel for how addicted to travel we'd become, though, we expected it to be only a temporary retirement. And indeed, when we were called away to Peru on a secret mission, we were incredibly excited to slip back into them.
Because Señor Pig had gotten so beloved, and so worn-out from his travels, he did not in fact come out of retirement. Instead, he passed the torch (and his place of honor strapped atop my backpack) over to his young protégé, Señorita Pig...
Despite our clear reluctance to hit the road without the companionship of a member of the suidae family, a pattern was beginning to emerge. Since we were only going to be in Peru for a few days, and notwithstanding that our secret mission necessitated a certain amount of fancy dress, we brought with us as little as we possibly could. Our backpacks felt nearly empty.
It was wonderful. And it set us up for what was to come next.
In December 2008, we we out on the road again, this time traveling to Mexico City. On this trip, two things happened.
The first was our realization that we would never stop traveling – that for us, traveling wasn't something that ended with our RTW trip. After Mexico City, it was off to the races again. The following year, we visited five different countries, and by the end of this year we'll have hit four more.
The other thing that happened on our trip to Mexico City was that it was the first time we traveled with our new bags. Not that they're new, really – they've actually accompanied us on all of our travels. In fact, you can see them in the lower left corner of that first photo, that picture of our bags from our RTW trip.
Yup, those little black day bags. These:
Those little black bags, which carry less than 2 liters each, are all we ever take with us when we travel anymore. For comparison, they're just a touch bigger than the Lonely Planet Africa guidebook.
Now, this leads to three obvious questions:
- Um, really?
- How on earth is that possible?
- Why in the name of Señor Pig would you want to do that?
Hey – don't take the name of Señor Pig in vain. He's very sensitive.
Now, if you'll just settle down and behave, we'll tackle these questions in reverse order.
Because it's wonderful. It's freeing on a level that's difficult to describe, particularly if you've never traveled before.
Let me paint you two pictures. The first one is of a backpacker, weighted down with a heavy backpack. Her flight lands at a new and unfamiliar city. Because she's a sensible backpacker, she has her pack stowed in the overhear bin (or better yet, under the seat in front of her), so she can just head on out rather than having to wait at the luggage carousel. As soon as she passes into the main terminal, though, she's beset by armies of touts and taxi drivers, who are drawn to her backpack like lions to a wounded gazelle. Bravely fighting them off, she emerges into the sweltering heat of the city, and makes her way to the Metro.
In the heat, she's really starting to feel the weight of her pack digging into her shoulders. Once she squeezes onto the Metro, she takes it off so she can hold it in front of her to make sure no one pilfers through it. After exiting the Metro, she starts making her way up and down the crowded, noisy streets of the baking city. She's really feeling that pack now, sticky against her sweaty back, and she keeps rubbing at the place where her neck meets her shoulders to try and ease the pain. Every now and then she takes a quick break from trying to find a place to stay, and slips her pack off so she can sit in the shade of a tree and catch her breath. Soon enough, though, she has to hoist it back on again...
Now, imagine the same traveler in the same situation, but carrying only one of those lovely little black bags instead. She walks right past the vultures at the airport, who pay her no mind – without any visible luggage, she appears to just be waiting there to pick up someone else or something. Riding the Metro is a breeze, and without the weight of that pack on her back the city doesn't seem to be so hot after all. Wandering calmly up and down the streets looking for a place to stay, she's not so much a target for pickpockets or those quasi-mythical "bag-slashers" either. If she stops to grab a bite to eat, she doesn't need to laboriously attach her backpack to her chair or anything, and so on.
You get the idea. And I promise you, if you give it a try just once, you'll never go back to lugging all that stuff around on your pack.
(And yes, by "all that stuff" I mean the stuff that felt like a ludicrously small, light backpack to me only a few years ago.)
It's actually pretty straightforward – just an extension of the rules I wrote about three years ago. Now we're just taking them to a ridiculous extreme.
The most obvious question is how do you fit enough clothes into those bags? Well, it turns out that with those handy-dandy compression bags you pack clothes into, you can fit an awful lot! When we travel, with one of those compression bags we can fit all of our clothes for the trip into one of the small black bags (usually mine).
If you've already gotten comfortable with how few items of clothing you can get away with taking on a trip like this, you'll be amazed at how small get when you pack them up. With a bigger backpack, you keep finding yourself saying, "Well, I'll bring those pants too in case it gets really cold, and I'll bring that shirt in case I decide to go to the opera or something, and I'll bring those shoes too in case I go clubbing..." With your new laughably small bag, there's no question about any of that anymore. Instead of planning for what might happen, you need to plan for what will happen, and then adapt on the ground if and when things change.
Trust me, you can do it.
Jessica will probably post our full packing list at some point, so I won't go through it all here. Suffice to say for now that you really can fit enough in there.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that we augment our bags with a "food bag" full of munchies on travel days. It's just a little cloth bag that we otherwise stuff into one of the other bags.)
I understand your skepticism. We've encountered it before, not least from airport security personnel. We had one guy who refused to believe that we hadn't just forgotten to pick up our bags from the luggage carousel before getting in line at customs. So we understand where you're coming from. But I promise you, we're completely serious.
Here, let's take this example:
Exhibit A, above, is all the stuff we took with us to the hotel on Cape Cod where we spent two days when we were getting married last year.
Exhibit B is the sum total of the luggage we took with us on our three-week honeymoon through Turkey, India, and France.
Here's a photo of us about to leave for the airport to head out on said honeymoon:
Now, I know what you're thinking. Three weeks is one thing, but c'mon – it's a far cry from a year-long (or longer) trip!
And you are absolutely right. For that longer trip, we might just need to slip an item or two into our little food bag. But other than that, we wouldn't be taking any more bags, or any bigger bags.
As hard as it is for me to write it, since we've so long described ourselves as backpackers... we will probably never travel with anything as big as a backpack again.
Anyway, that's just us. As always, your mileage may vary.