On Backpacking Gear and Minimal Travels
“Traveling is one way of lengthening life,” — Said Ben Franklin with no proof at all, but I still believe him.
I’ve always liked to travel and in the past three years or so, it have gradually grown into a passion. As with anything, when you’re passionate about something, you tend to become good at it. So what does it mean to be a good traveler? There are of course many answers to this, but for me it boils down to being flexible.
A while ago I noticed that I was bringing less stuff every time I went on a trip. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but I just seemed to gradually get a better sense of what I actually needed at my destinations. As a result of carrying less, I felt more free to explore and I just had more fun traveling without the drag of useless junk.
“But I’ll usually just park all my stuff in a hotel room” you might say. First, the truth is that you will walk a lot more with your luggage than you think. Second, what this does is that it tend to keep you within reach of your hotel. An impulsive decision to take an boat ride to a distant island suddenly becomes harder because you are bound to the stuff in your hotel room. Everyone knows that bringing a backpack to a party sucks and it’s the same with traveling. You are going too a three week long party and you don’t wanna bring three bags along with your kitchen sink.
Loren Bell from Lonely Planet sums it up nicely:
“Packing small is essential for any globe-trotter committed to embracing the chaos of travel. With a small pack, you can chase down your Japanese train as it unapologetically departs on time. You can squeeze in to (or on top of) the only bus to the next village in India. Or, as we learned, when your scheduled speed boat leaves while you are busy bailing your guide out of jail, small packs will allow you to cram six large Americans into a tiny fishing boat to splash your way to your deserted island bungalow in time to watch the sunset.”
So as I became conscious that bringing less stuff would open up a lot more possibilities on my adventures I started doing some research and with this article I will share with you what I’ve found. The goal of this article is simply to share my tips and insights on how to travel lite and smart.
Disclaimer: I will link to a lot of stuff in this article, but remember that this is all nice-to-have’s. You don’t need any specific gear to have a good time traveling and don’t let anyone tell you anything else. I’m pretty sure Marco Polo didn’t have sunscreen, hydrophobic clothes or a super light carbon carry-on and he seemingly had good time visiting Mr. Kublai and his company despite this. Traveling is about adventure and immersing yourself in a foreign culture. The purpose of this article is only to give suggestions on how you can have a better traveling experience.
The beauty of merino wool
The best way I’ve found to save space in your backpack is to bring less clothes, and the best way to bring less clothes is to wear merino wool. Merino wool comes from a specific breed of sheep, which originated in Spain around the 12th century. The reason why it will help you cut down on weight is that you can wear the same goddamn merino clothes every day. This wool contains lanolin, which has antibacterial properties, resulting in highly reduced body odor. You can wear this stuff for weeks without smelling, meaning that you only have to bring one or two sets of it for your trip.
But, this is only one of many formidable features of merino wool:
- It is great at trapping in body heat without making you over-heated and stuffy which makes it perfect for exercising with.
- It is very good at wicking moisture away from the body, absorbing it and drying quickly. Perfect for hot and sweaty days on the ski slopes.
- Unlike regular wool, merino wool is very soft and won’t irritate the skin. This is because it has smaller fibres and scales.
- The fabric is slightly moisture repellent (keratin fibers are hydrophobic at one end and hydrophilic at the other), allowing the user to avoid the feeling of wetness. But if you do get soaked, unlike cotton and synthetic fibers, wool retains warmth when wet.
- The breathability of merino wool is superior to cotton and other man-made fabrics.
- It’s a natural, biodegradable and renewable fibre, making it the perfect choice for those seeking clothing that has a minimal impact on the environment.
- Wool is extremely strong, durable and relatively wrinkle resistant. It can be bent back on itself as many as 20,000 times without breaking making it more than 6 times stronger than cotton and silk.
So why isn’t everyone wearing this all the time? The downside is that it tend to be expensive. It is for instance hard to find a good quality merino wool t-shirt under $40. But considering the benefits I think it is fair to say that merino wool clothing is more than worth the price. Also, most people just associate wool with sporting/hiking clothes even though you can get pretty much everything made with it.
All the clothing you will need for you trip
Now that we got the wool covered, let’s dive in and make a hypothetical packing list. Note that I have tried to make a very generic list, but your actual list may vary slightly depending on your destination. Also, when I say 2 pairs, I mean 2 pairs including the pair you are wearing.
- Socks — 2 pairs of merino socks. The ones from Icebreaker or Patagonia should be sufficient.
- T-Shirt — 2 pairs of merino t-shirts. Choose a wool fabric weight of around 150s if you want the most versatile for any temperature. If you are going to a very cold place you might consider stepping up to 200+s. I own this from Icebreaker. Wolly is a good alternative to the Icebreaker while Outlier is supposedly the best you can get.
- Formal Shirt — If you know you will be attending formal meetings or dinners you could bring a merino button down shirt. Wool and Prince make really nice oxfords.
- Underwear — 2 pairs of merino boxers. Icebreaker’s are great.
- Sweater — One thin or thick wool sweater depending on climate. Before buying anything you should check if your parents or grand parents have something hand knitted lying around. They often do. Thrift shops is also a good source for finding a cheap high quality wool sweater.
- Pant — I prefer a high quality raw selvedge denim. They are also highly odor resistance and you can wear them for months without washing. Read more on why they are awesome here.
- Jacket — This also depends on the climate but bring only one. Going to Norway in the summer? Bring a shell. California? A cool looking bomber will be fine. Alaska in the winter? Bring a down jacket, but in general avoid bringing something bulky. In stead use a layering strategy where your warmest outfit is basically just a combination of all your clothes.
- Shorts — Don’t bring one shorts for walking, one for running and one for swimming. Bring one that you can do all things with. Outlier and Patagonia have great all purpose shorts.
- Shoes — One pair of shoes is enough and it should preferably be your running shoes. They are comfortable, light, good for hiking and OK looking. Wait, what’s that? You say that your runners are shock yellow with purple stripes? All I can say to that is that you need to stand in a corner and think about what you have done. On a side note concerning bringing only one pair. When Imelda Marcos, the wife of luxury-loving Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, fled the country with him in 1986, she reportedly left behind 2,700 pairs of shoes. If she can do it, so can you.
Now you have all the clothing you will need for months of traveling. If you wear your sweater and jacket, all your extra clothing, meaning one pair of Socks, T-Shirt and Underwear could easily just fit in your pockets. A quick pro tip is to try and keep all your clothes neutral in terms of patterns, colors, and structure.
This way everything will go nicely together and help to achieve a well tailored look. You don’t have to look like a tourist just because you are one.
We have already saved much space with our clothing, but what should we fill the rest of the backpack with (except for obvious things like passport and toiletries)? Now it’s less about what will save you space and more about what will make your traveling experience better. Let’s first talk about the backpack itself first.
- Backpack — Ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? It states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. I remember reading somewhere that the same principle applies when you are packing and I can confirm that is true. The contents of your bag will expand to fill the available space. This means you should get a small and comfortable backpack. I’m rocking a simple yet beautiful Everlane Twill Snap Backpack, but if you want something more robust and secure I’ve heard that this one from Tom Bihn will last you a lifetime. Osprey’s are also very good.
- Headphones — I would recommend noise cancelling headphones. I love the feeling of shutting up the world around you on a noisy public transit. Especially nice to have if you’re into audiobooks. Quite Comfort 25 is expensive, but astonishingly good.
- Battery to charge your phone — Anker is cheap and works well, but the model I have also have a crappy flashlight built in that is controlled by the same switch that you use to turn on/off the device. It was a pain in the ass to figure out how it worked. Horrible design choice.
- Parachute chord — Extremely strong rope. It can hold your rental car together in emergencies and be used to dry clothes. If you can’t find rope, just buy a bracelet and open it straight away. It’s useful as a rope, not as a fashion wearable.
- Bluetooth speaker — This is very important for me at least. Use it on the beach with friends or have it blast LOTR music from your backpack when your hiking in the mountains. I have the Fugoo Style speaker and it’s really great. I don’t know why anyone would buy the more expensive “Tough” version. I’ve used the regular version in warm dusty deserts, cold snowy mountains and even in a jacuzzi. I don’t know how I can destroy it. I should mention that UE also makes great speakers.
- Dry sack — Use it to store stuff that shouldn’t get wet like electronics. Can also be used to wash clothes. Just put in water, detergent and clothes, and then shake it for 2–3 minutes.
- Sleeping bag liner — So you don’t have to rent sheets when staying at hostels. An alternative would be a small sleeping bag, but liners take much less space in you backpack and Hostels are rarely very cold so that shouldn’t be a problem.
- Microfiber/linen Towel — Lightweight, low volume and dries quickly.
In addition to stuff in you backpack, here is some items that I always carry on me:
- Small Multitool — You’ll never know when you need something sharp. Can come in handy in many situations. It’s also important that they blade length is less than 5cm so it will go through airport security. I can recommend both the Victorinox Minichamp and Leatherman Squirt.
- Small notebook — Should fit in your back pocket. You don’t want to depend on your phone for taking important notes in case it runs out of battery. Also, it is easier to give people a pen and paper, rather then a phone when you want them to write/ explain something for you. You can’t go wrong with Field Notes. Holds up surprisingly well over time in your pocket.
- Small pen — For your notebook. Preferably a ballpoint pen that can sit comfortable in you pocket. I like Fisher Space Pen because it is very reliable and works well on wet surfaces.
- Watch — It looks cool and it will tell you the time when your phone is dead. Buy a Timex Weekender for $25. They are incredibly stylish and robust for the price.
This is items I know I will use a lot on the road. For smaller stuff I don’t know if I need, I follow traveler Rolf Potts’ tips: Don’t pack for worst case scenarios. Pack for best case scenarios and buy stuff on the road when you need it. I recommend reading his great book Vagabonding if you want to learn more about long term travels.
Applying traveling lifestyle to regular life
As a side note in the end I would like to bring one subject to attention. Once I had a grasp of how easy and fun minimal traveling was, I started to apply the same principals to my regular life. Buy less, but buy it so it last. If you invest in quality products they will often turn out to be cheaper than the alternatives because they last longer. Not to mention how much less environmental impact they have. Think about it. Do you really need more than three t-shirts, two pants and two sweaters? Buying new things just gives an instant gratification which makes it addictive like a substance. However, when I talk about a minimal lifestyle I do not talk about having as few stuff as possible. If it was, then I wouldn’t tell you to buy a bunch of shit in this article. It’s more about not living in excess and being conscious about what you buy. If you’re an active person you might have tons of sporting equipment and I think this is completely fine as long as you use it from time to time.
But anyway, just try bringing less stuff on your next adventure and hopefully it will inspire you to a more minimal and consumer conscious lifestyle like it did with me. Have a nice day!