The longer we travel, the more couples like us we discover or even meet. Like us they dreamed about traveling, like us they made the big trip happen, and like us they document [...]
In preparation for our one-year trip, there was a serious discrepancy between what I wanted to pack—jeans, cotton t-shirts, and leather sandals—and what I thought I should pack—nylon pants, performance-fabric shirts, and sport sandals. This packing conundrum stressed me out. I probably worried more about what to pack than where we would be staying. Everything I owned for one year had to fit into a small backpack, keep me outfitted for 12 months in various environs and climates, and be comfortable all at the same time. Seems impossible, right?
It kind of is. Ultimately, it’s impossible to carry everything you need for every situation you’ll encounter on a long trip. (For one, it’s impossible to predict every situation you’ll encounter). Given that, there will be pounds of clothes, equipment, and sundries you may never end up using. Even if every item is carefully thought out, there will still be stuff you’ll cart halfway around the world, until you chuck it into some hostel free box.
So what’s the point, really? Why stress out about packing if you don’t really know what you’ll need while traveling? After one year of packing and repacking my bag countless times, wearing the same clothes day in and day out, and dumping numerous items I was sure I would need, I’ve perfected my packing philosophy. This guide is from a woman’s perspective, obviously, but the basic suggestions can be applied to male travelers too.
What to start with
Purging our stuff was one of the most invigorating results of adopting a travel lifestyle. How silly, then, to weigh ourselves down with necessary possessions as we set out on our journey. Sadly, that’s what we did. I ended up with clothes I didn’t really need to be carrying, a large medical kit (half of which we didn’t use), and random items like bungee cords that had little use.
Start with your very basic needs and add from there, or not. Just don’t overthink it. You will be able to buy things you don’t have. You will be able to do laundry. You don’t have to have a super fancy outfit to go to (most) nice dinners. Start simple.
What to wear
The type of clothes you take and how much will depend on the climate you’re starting out in. I suggest bringing enough to go 4-5 days without doing laundry. Start with underwear, which you will (hopefully) want clean every day. I took five pairs of Patagonia quick-dry underwear which I could easily wash and hang dry. Depending on climate, three bottoms and three tops should get you through 5 days without having to wash anything. You can always buy more when you get there. You may need to add a jacket, or long underwear, or a hat as climate indicates.
You won’t have to do laundry as often as you think. We are used to washing out clothes a lot, typically after one wear, even when the clothes aren’t really dirty. I quickly learned how to spot clean and took advantage of fresh air to get rid of the mustiness. It’s really not that bad, people.
What to brush your teeth with
Toiletries should be travel-sized so you don’t have to check your luggage. Take bar soap in a plastic bag. I prefer chemical-free cosmetics and I worried about not finding natural soaps and creams in certain places. It’s true, in some areas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find sulfate-free shampoo. Instead of carrying a case with you, research natural options you could make yourself or use in raw form. Now is a great time to start testing what you can live without. I’ll bet its more than you think.
What to put on your feet
Shoes. Shoes. Oh my God, shoes. There are so many possibilities. Hiking shoes, running shoes, going-around-town shoes, sandals, and something to wear to a nice dinner (maybe male readers have less difficulty with this). Many of these can be one in the same, and I would suggest starting with two pairs (perhaps an easily packable third such as flats or flip flops) and adding if you need. What are your activity plans for the first leg of your journey? If planning to be at the beach, throw in the flip flops or some multi-purpose sandals.
If you’ll be trekking in the Andes, bring your sturdiest hiking shoes. You can find shoes that serve multiple purposes, such as a hiking shoe that you can walk around town in, or a comfortable sandal you can wear to dinner. If you need more specialty shoes, you can buy them as you need them and either ship them home or leave them at a hostel. But hold off on hauling around a pair for every occasion.
What to write your blog and call home with
When it comes to gadgets the first impulse is to gear up, but there are some real downsides to this. First, carrying around a bunch of expensive equipment makes you a target for theft. Second, the more gear you have, the more attention you’re paying to that gear and the less you’re experiencing. I ended up bringing an iPhone but I probably won’t next time. Think what you can do with the least amount of stuff. Everything the iPhone can do, I can do with my camera and laptop (including making calls).
Your gear will depend on how you want to document your trip—a digital SLR is not necessary to take good photos, but if you’re building your travel photography business, you’ll know the difference. However, you may want your iPhone if you don’t plan on bringing a point-and-shoot. I would definitely avoid bringing lots of extra devices thinking you’ll be safer or happier with them on you.
What to read
My first trip to Europe, I hauled around a brick of a guidebook called Europe on a Shoestring. It probably weighed 5 pounds. I love to read and reading is a great way to pass the time during long boring bus rides, but books are heavy.
Buying books in English in many countries was more difficult than I thought. It was fun to pick up random books left at hostel free libraries, so taking along an e-reader will depend on whether you like having a personal library at your fingertips, or like the adventure of hunting for your next read. I might bring an e-reader on the next trip, only because I’d like to easily access and read books about the countries I’m visiting while I’m actually visiting them.
What not to forget
My packing philosophy is very minimalist: start with the bare essentials and add if needed along the way. Other than the obvious things, there are a few items I will make sure I pack next time:
- Universal sink stopper—so much easier, and more hygienic, than stuffing a sock in the drain while hand-washing clothes
- Twine or clothing line—there are times you need to tie something, or hang your clothes to dry
- Leggings, yoga pants, or other comfortable pants—there many are times when you just want to be as comfortable as possible
- Daypack—much more functional than a purse
- Sarong or large scarf—serves many purposes, such as a towel, picnic blanket, wrap, or even a skirt
When it boils down to it, what you decide to pack is a completely personal decision. Just don’t overthink it. Save that energy for planning your itinerary, researching the best treks, and applying for house-sitting positions.
When you think about undertaking the grand adventure of world travel, you can easily get bogged down by the logistics: how (much) to save, what to pack, where to go… Particularly the money question can be overwhelming; in the course of everyday life it’s tough to imagine coming up with a RTW trip budget in a reasonable period of time. Yet attending to these concerns before shifting your entire thinking is like treating symptoms without addressing root causes. To make a life of travel happen, you must first change your entire outlook.
From teenage dreams to adult reality
As a teenager, I dreamt of living in a different country every year. I swore I’d never end up like the character in a famous Czech comedy How Poets Lose Their Illusions who charted his life on a graph, hung on a hallway wall, with milestones for wife, first child, vacation in Yugoslavia, car, promotion, house, and so on. Living a life prescribed by social pressures seemed antithesis to personal happiness.
In college I lived out of my backpack (my Serbian friends gave me an unprintable nickname that suggested the wind and I were more than good friends). I continued traveling in graduate schools abroad, in Hungary and Holland, while my friends were settling down with serious jobs, starting families, and buying apartments. Having traversed the U.S. and hitchhiked around Europe, I came to America after my third and final college graduation, married the love of my life, and soon faced the harsh reality of having to work full-time to pay rent and groceries.
Real life caught up with me. I worked my way from a day laborer to a nonprofit marketing director, the backpack found a permanent spot in the back of the closet, and the vast majority of trips I took were to visits to in-laws in California and vacations in Slovakia every three years.
Lindsay and I still can’t decide how and when we came up with the idea to take a yearlong trip around the world. But in late 2005 and early 2006 we found ourselves looking for a house with the intent of selling it in five years and using the proceeds to finance our world trip. It didn’t quite work out that way—the mortgage, remodeling, jobs to pay for it all, and the housing market plunge weighed us down like a giant anchor. Destinations, packing, or blogging were the last thing on our minds, if they ever occurred to us at all. But as much as we struggled, we were following our plan.
When the five-year mark came around, in early 2011, we thought we’d made it and would leave that October, as planned. But the realtor told us we’d lose money if we sold. Our hopes drained: we saw our dream slip away as we had to postpone the house sale and with it our departure date. We were living the greatest disappointment of our life together.
Then something changed. I am not sure I can explain it, even in hindsight. In martial arts you deflect the attack, absorb its force, and turn it back on itself—that’s how the switch felt. We’d worked hard for years to give up on our dream. We refused to stay down and instead scrambled back to our feet and kept fighting. Even though we felt defeated, we didn’t throw in the towel—we ditched it.
“Life gets in the way,” the saying goes. When that happens, you must move life out of the way and keep going after your dream.
New life order
Perhaps our biggest mistake was thinking that making our dream of travel will be easy, that we could do it alongside living our regular lives. This was false. A life of travel, which for us means alternating trips with working to save for the next one, requires a major shift in values. In other words, traveling must become your first priority. This is a difficult change to make, chiefly because of the endowment effect, the human tendency to value what we have more than if we did not have it. Even a crushing mortgage and a soul-sucking job may seem more valuable than not owning a home and being unemployed.
The switch I described earlier happened when Lindsay and I realized we wanted to take our big trip more than anything else and were willing to do anything do make it happen. The epiphany was both liberating and challenging. We prepared to sacrifice the house, the car and 99% of our possessions along with our jobs and the comforts of our adopted hometown in order to lead a life of travel. We prepared to uproot ourselves and feel at home wherever our toothbrushes were, they way we used to in our respective backpacking days. We prepared to live a life uncharted by adulthood and its commonly-conceived responsibilities.
It was only sometime during the trip when I understood I was traveling not just in space but also in time—back to the life of cavorting with the wind.
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