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Monday, October 23, 2017

How I travel light

To most Americans, backpacking means multi-day hiking and camping, carrying everything in a towering, 70+-liter backpack. But for many young Europeans and Australians, it means traveling independently around the world, carrying everything in a backpack. And Southeast Asia is the quintessential destination for doing this. It has been ever since the Beats of the 1950s and hippies of the ’60s started it all (some of them are still here today).

We’re in Thailand now, and too old to be carrying anything that big. Everything I have is in this 40L backpack, plus my daypack which is 15L in volume. I thought you might be interested in how I do it.

Main backpack, fully packed, open to show contents

First, let's open the mesh compartment where the "lid" of the bag unzips.
In here I have some travel wash in a Ziploc bag (I only meant to buy one tube, but it came in a pack of 4). This is for occasional hand washing of laundry in a pinch. There is also a universal plug in the bag, for stopping any sink. 

Also here is a quick-drying travel towel in its own mesh bag, which we've used for beach or hostel occasionally. Next to that is my khanga, a brilliant souvenir from Tanzania. It weighs next to nothing and I have used it as a beach blanket, a towel, to wrap and carry things in, or to wrap myself in on a boat in the morning chill. (It was actually T's birthday present from our Arusha hostess, but since she was inspired to collect sarongs in Africa, it's now my most versatile item. Can even be used to cover up shoulders/shins in case of unexpectedly encountering a house of worship.)

Finally, please note a few safety pins and rubber bands that are clipped to the mesh, just in case. Mrs. Geisler, the typing teacher, told us to do this the first time I ever went on a trip without my family, and it's a habit I never broke.


Here we have the main ingredients of the bag, i.e., clothing. The packing cube on the left contains pants/shorts--the only items I fold. The tote bag contains shirts (rolled up), bandanna, and swimsuit. The bath bag (with duck) contains all toiletries. Given that I don't wear makeup or take any prescription drugs, I still don't know why it's so full! Sunscreen and insect repellent? First aid?

The small orange stuff sack contains socks and what a British person once called "smalls." Oh, and the plastic bag contains my sandals. I tuck these in last thing at the top of the backpack, just before I lock it shut.

 The striped bag is for dirty laundry, to keep it separate from everything else in the backpack. The blue packing cube contains some small items that could otherwise be lost too easily: headlamp, portable charger, clothespins, shoelaces, necklace, batteries. This cube tucks in vertically between other items when I pack the backpack horizontally--it takes up so little room you can't even see it in the top picture.
  Tucked into the very bottom of the backpack is this memento of Barack Obama's first inauguration. This was the trip where I almost missed my flight to the U.S. (from Canada) because I was detained for carrying only a sweater in a plastic bag. I was only traveling for the day, but I guess it looked suspicious. So I bought this tote bag for my return from Washington, D.C.

It contains three things I don't need to get out every day. One is a pair of canvas sneakers that I occasionally use, e.g., to go to a gym. (They are also supposed to be acceptable footwear should we ever want to visit an upscale bar, etc., but T. only has her flip flops and hiking boots anyway!) The second is a bunch of small notebooks, which I'm gradually filling with notes from our travels and then mailing "home."


Last, and least frequently removed from the backpack, is a compression bag. When empty it looked like this:
 You put whatever items of clothing you don't need very often in here, squeeze all the air out through the valves at the bottom of the bag, and roll it up. In my case these are a few items of warm clothing that I won't need for months, but are too nice to get rid of. I expect to unpack them in Canada.


So much for the main backpack. Let's check out the bag I carry everywhere!
Decorated with souvenirs from every country (so I don't have to pack any)



 In this top zip compartment is a clip for a keyring, plus a couple of labeled Ziploc bags containing chargers and cords for everything. The duck also lives in here.

Normally this mesh pocket contains a water bottle. At Cape Town airport, the security guy questioned me because he couldn't see a South African flag on my bag! So I try to keep something clear in here. There's also a cross which a friend of T's gave us for our travels. It's not that we believe it has any magic powers, but people all over the world wear or carry symbols of their religion. I like this one.


The other mesh pocket contains my sunglasses and glasses case. There are cloths in here to clean glasses and, because I'm always wearing mine, a harmonica. You never know when I might feel like making music on the road.
The sunglasses are protected by my Australian Open "stubby holder," a foam thing handy for holding cold drinks.



The main compartment of the daypack contains whatever I need during the day. When we are in transit and I have to carry everything, this includes the portable hard drive used for backup, my passport and other essential travel documents (not pictured), and noise-canceling headphones. On a day out I would normally leave these locked up securely where we are staying. The bag also contains a phrase book (or in the case of Asia, Point It, which just has pictures you can point at); my journal for making notes; if necessary, a fleece in a water-resistant stuff sack (the soft inside turns out to form a travel pillow); and a blue travel cube with Ziplocs/plastic bags, which are always handy for keeping liquids separate and occasionally for airline security. Mobile phone and camera (not pictured). Oh, and books. I should really limit myself to one book because the bag would then be less full and heavy, but I have not been successful.

One more item that lives in my daypack in rainy places: a lightweight waterproof jacket (not pictured) that rolls up into its own pocket. When I'm in transit, it clips via a carabiner onto the outside of my backpack.


This last item looks like a Bible carrying case (if you grew up in evangelical country, you know what I'm talking about). It is actually a foil-lined bag that is supposed to keep food cool. It is useful to carry lunch/snacks separately, if we are traveling on a long-distance bus or train. On planes, I use this as a small handbag for anything I'm likely to use during the flight. Book, iPod, Ziploc with toiletries, etc. I always carry my eye mask and ear plugs with me on board--let's face it, I'm unlikely to sleep as it is. My travel mug can also live in here when it's not clipped to a carabiner on the outside of my bag!

So there you have it. How I travel light. And by light, I really mean (since my backpack is well designed, with comfortable waist straps) that the backpack is light enough to walk around carrying, with my hands free. It can squeeze under a bus seat or even onto my lap (think African minibus), and, provided the contents meet security requirements, into the carry-on compartment of a plane. In fact, the daypack even zips onto the backpack so I can carry it all at once, but I find that feature awkward. When I have to carry everything, it's easier for me to wear the daypack in front. Believe me, once you see enough people traveling around it won't feel weird anymore.

You'll notice I still have room for many items that are personal and make me feel at home wherever I go. Your approach should be personal as well; there is no "one size fits all."

I hope I can answer any questions so that you, too, can travel light--whether it's on vacation with only a carry-on, or around the world just doing laundry once a week.

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