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Posted by Tim on Sep 7, 2010
Backpacking Without Backpacks

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:

'The luggage we carried on our round-the-world trip (ignore the badminton set)

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.

Coming out of retirement

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...

'Señorita Pig on her first (and only) international voyage

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.

Two revelations in Mexico City

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:

'Our new luggage (seen here at the Bogata airport, surrounding a Gatorade and a bag of empanadas)

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 Рdon't take the name of Se̱or Pig in vain. He's very sensitive.

Now, if you'll just settle down and behave, we'll tackle these questions in reverse order.

Why would you want to do that?

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 real life, the backpacker would probably also be wearing pants (unless on Khao San Road in Bangkok)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.)

Okay, how the heck do you do that?

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.)

Sorry, but I just don

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:

'Taken in the hallway of the luxurious Hampton Inn

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:

'We've been happily married for about 12 hours in this picture!

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.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

Noah Singman
September 9, 2010 at 3:18pm
I love the idea of packing light, but I'm not visiting the third world countries you guys frequent without lots of personal electronics and weaponry. Say it loud – I'm a coward and I'm proud!
September 9, 2010 at 3:48pm
LOL! Noah, one of these days we're going to drag you and Connie to Argentina. If you liked Fogo de Chão, you'll love Siga la Vaca in Buenos Aires!
Maggie (Tim's sister)
September 9, 2010 at 3:56pm
This is a test of the Loafy loves you system… This is only a test. *beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep*
September 10, 2010 at 9:52am
Thanks, Maggie! :)
September 12, 2010 at 11:10am
wait– how many outfits for 2 people does one fit into a compressor bag that small? and how do you vacuum seal it once you are away from home? or am i thinking of a different type of bag? i love lists and would love to see Jessica compile what you actually bring! *hint, hint* mostly because i over pack for every camping trip ever.
September 12, 2010 at 12:57pm
We choose our clothes strategically, so that we can get several additional "outfits" by doing a bit of mix-and-matching. We also do a touch of "layering" on travel days – I'll wear a T-shirt under a button-up shirt, that sort of thing. As for exact numbers, I'll leave that to Jessica – she's the keeper of our packing list. :)

The bags we use are the kind that you put clothes into, and then roll up to squeeze out all of the air. So as long as I don't accidentally put a hole into one (*cough*) they're a piece of cake for us to "compress" when we're on the road. :)

September 13, 2010 at 8:43am
Wow, you guys are like extreme travelers! Kudos to you for packing so light – you are absolutely right that it is better. Sometimes, I feel like the girl you describe above and I hate it, but I already feel like I am down to my personal bare minimum. I'd be curious to see your packing list. Right now, I am in disbelief as to how you can travel so light!
September 13, 2010 at 10:16am
Hi Amy! We've been really enjoying following along on your travels through your blog – I was just reading your post about Belfast an hour or so ago.

Oh, and by the way, I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and my old apartment there had a view of Three Rivers Stadium. I used to enjoy an "Arn City" beer while sitting out there and listening to the "Stillers" play.

Between you and Missy, it sounds like there's definitely a call for Jessica to post our packing list. :)

(In the meantime, it's worth noting that we are in fact six kinds of crazy, and traveling the way we do certainly isn't for everyone. Our number-one travel mantra is that every traveler is different, and that everyone has to travel the way that feels right for them.)

September 13, 2010 at 12:31pm
Tim, that's cool that you spent some time in Pittsburgh. Then you probably understand my post about the Stillers! I am glad you are enjoying the blog; I always like hearing that someone besides my mother reads it!

Looking forward to reading about the packing list (except the part where you give my husband ideas and he makes me ditch items that are valued only by me!)

September 13, 2010 at 3:54pm
reminds me of the week in 1993 when my backpack had been stolen in Colombia… there suddenly was a sensation of freedom and peace of mind :)
September 13, 2010 at 9:04pm
Have you heard about or seen Rolf Potts latest adventure? The No Baggage Challenge, an RTW trip with only what he can carry in pockets of his clothes. http://www.rtwblog.com
September 14, 2010 at 8:22am
Amy said:

Looking forward to reading about the packing list (except the part where you give my husband ideas and he makes me ditch items that are valued only by me!)

LOL! Just remind him of the dangers of my band-aid over-enthusiasm (above) if you need to!

September 14, 2010 at 8:45am
Klaus said:

reminds me of the week in 1993 when my backpack had been stolen in Colombia… there suddenly was a sensation of freedom and peace of mind :)

Exactly! There's a TV show called Amazing Race, where people are basically backpacking around the world completing challenges. They all lug around these absurdly huge backpacks. There was one episode where a father-and-daughter team lost their backpacks, and Jessica and I were ridiculously proud of them when they decided to continue without their packs instead of going back for them. :)

September 14, 2010 at 8:56am
Chris Heidrich said:

Have you heard about or seen Rolf Potts latest adventure? The No Baggage Challenge, an RTW trip with only what he can carry in pockets of his clothes.

Wow, it's amazing to hear from you, Chris! (For those of you playing along at home: Chis is the co-founder of the illustrious BootsNAll.com, which is a fantastic resource for independent travelers, and was in fact probably our biggest source of info and inspiration when we were first planning our RTW trip!)

Thanks for the link to Rolf's website – I hadn't heard of that before. I love that he's taking this backpacking minimalism to its logical extreme! :)

Andy E
September 14, 2010 at 9:54am
Nah – I still don't buy it. I took 14 pants RTW (and by pants, I mean undercracker garments!) I mean, who wants to do the washing, more than twice a week!
September 15, 2010 at 9:04am
LOL! Admit it, Andy: this is truly the reason you and Bex decided to have children. Once they're old enough, you can put them to work washing your knickers! ;)
September 16, 2010 at 3:03am
Tim and Jessica,
So excited that I stumbled on your fantastic blog! I'm going to love reading it…

Many years ago, I also travelled with only a small bag through Africa, and coming back through Europe I was actually pulled aside and questioned in a back room because authorities thought it was suspicious I didn't have more stuff! I'm glad you are promoting the minimalist travel lifestyle… it really can be done!

September 18, 2010 at 1:26pm
Hi Mary!

Thanks so much for the kind words about our blog. And that's hilarious that you drew suspicion onto yourself by traveling so light! :)

I was just reading your most recent blog entry, where you managed to score your refund more or less by accident. It reminded me so much of when we were first learning to haggle in Peru – I kept getting good prices because my Spanish was so bad. They'd name a price, and I'd be trying to figure out how to say the price I wanted to respond with, and they'd misunderstand my silence and drop their price substantially before I even had a chance to say anything. :)

Anyway, that's a long-winded way of saying I'm really enjoying your blog, and am looking forward to your future adventures!

Happy travels! :)

Maggie (Tim's sister)
September 20, 2010 at 4:03pm
OK I know for a fact now that I would never ever be able to do this unless I had serious hedgehog travel thearpy first. Heck, when Emily and I went to King's Dominion for 3-4 days it looked like we were moving into the hotel! I tend to pack everything but the kitchen sink when I travel so the idea of packing really lightly terrifies me. I'm the Queen of the "what ifs" like: "what if we get hurt and need a first aid kit?," "What if we need fancy clothes for this particular resturant?" "What if the world ends and all I have is this ratty old pair of undies?!" You get the idea…

Space saver bags are AWESOME! Yet how do you re-use them when you don't have a vaccum cleaner handy? Do you kindly ask and elephant to suck all the air out of the bags for you?

Señorita Pig is so dang cute! I'm sure Señor Pig is enjoying his retirement by telling Chia all of his adventure stories.

Have fun travleing to South Africa, but please be careful as I hear the crime rate there is awful. The media has the wonderful way of scaring the hell out of me in terms of international travel so just do me a favor and be as safe as you two can be when traveling OK?

((((HUGE hugs to you both)))

September 21, 2010 at 9:54am
Hi Mags!

Yeah, the "what ifs" can be the death of packing lightly. Again, though, this is just how we travel, and isn't for everyone. You have to travel however is most comfortable for you. :)

The compression bags we use don't need vacuum cleaners – you just roll them up to squeeze out all the air!

And no worries, we'll be just fine in South Africa. It's not really any more dangerous than many other places we've been to – or even lived! Our old neighborhood in DC was probably more dangerous than most of the places we'll be going in South Africa! :)

September 23, 2010 at 3:52am
While we don't backpack we have cut our belongings to one small case between us.(us old people need warm clothes LOL)Funny how 10 years ago it would have been a suitcase a piece. Now it's enough undies to feel clean and a spare pair of pants and a few shirts!
It's also changed the types of trips we take. We usually end up almost naked at the laundry. However not as naked as the German visitor who dropped his pants (while covered in a towel)plopped them into the washer and sat next to me chatting while waiting for his pants to be done!
September 24, 2010 at 2:53pm
LOL! I love the image of you sitting in a laundry mat, perhaps just reading a book or something, when suddenly a semi-naked and very chatty German man appears next to you! You're lucky he didn't need to wash the towel too. ;)
September 28, 2010 at 3:10pm
You guys are nuts! (yes I am killing time at work until I get to go home, so am reading your blogs!).

I just bought a 30L pack and made Rod buy a 40L pack for our upcoming trip to Chile, so we wouldn't have any checked (aka lost) luggage. We did a trial run on our recent trip to NYC and it was awesome. Rod was reluctant (he likes to WAY overpack) but is slowly coming around. I told him you guys traveled for 18 months with packs this size. :)

That said, I don't think I could ever go down as small as those little bags you are using now! My DSLR camera won't even fit in that. Not to mention rain gear and stuff for hikes. We'll still need our bigger packs for trips when we will be camping too. But you sure set the standard for something to aspire too!

September 28, 2010 at 3:44pm
Hi Deb! Glad we can help with your lack of productivity at work today! :)

Yup, we are indeed crazy – we freely admit it. :D

But our insanity notwithstanding, kudos to you for bringing Rod over to the Dark Side! 30L and 40L bags are basically exactly what we had on our trip, and traveling with nice small bags like that in Chile should be a blast – let us know how it goes!

And yeah, our particular kind of packing definitely isn't for everyone. Like you mentioned, hiking or camping gear definitely isn't an option when you're trying to fit it all into something the size of a Coke bottle. :)

December 28, 2010 at 4:42am
Perfect post for me to come across right now…talking about some upcoming trips with a travel partner that require packing light but not this light -– until we both just saw this post and now we're beyond inspired.
January 7, 2011 at 11:47am
Hey Heather! I'm so glad the post was helpful for you guys. I'll warn you though: once you start packing this light, it becomes incredibly addicting! :)
March 6, 2012 at 10:32am
Hello, Hedgehogs! I have devoted almost all my online reading time for the past two or three weeks to reading your entire your site, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. The stories themselves and the way you tell them are really captivating.

To my point, though:

Jessica will probably post our full packing list at some point, so I won't go through it all here.

Is this likely to happen? I'm intensely curious to know what one stashes in those little bags for a three-week trip in a sweaty country. (=

Take care!

June 7, 2012 at 11:02am
Hi Babs! Mea culpa: I can't believe how long it's been since you commented and we never commented back. We're very bad hedgehogs! ;)

We were so happy to read how much you've enjoyed reading our website. That gives us a great amount of joy!

And yes, you are absolutely correct: We really *must* post our packing list. I actually took photos before a trip a year or two ago of what we pack in those tiny little bags. So one of these days (hopefully!) I'll actually get around to posting it. It's neat to see how little we can actually get by on! :)

Thank you so much for your comment, Babs! :)

Jeanne McElhinney
February 16, 2013 at 7:55am
Please post your list of stuff you carry in your small shoulder bags. Surely if you carry so little…it shouldn't take all that long! Please… Travel extensively but STILL am a slave to too much rubbish.

Happy travelling,

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