Thoughts on Minimalism and Packing Light – a travel philosophy

Window DetailA few weeks I was sitting at the San Francisco edition of Meet Plan Go listening to the small group of panelists gathered there to talk about travel philosophy and how they managed to fit long-term travel into their lives. Once they’d disseminated all their helpful how-tos and I-dids, they turned the floor over to the audience for questions. A man stepped up and asked a question I think many a prospective RTWer has at some point asked themselves:

“How do you pack your life in a 21-inch suitcase?” he said.

It came out a little panicked, a little exhausted, as if he’d already spent a good deal of time laboring over the question and hadn’t quite successfully answered it, as if the idea of making do with a mere 45 liters of possessions would somehow eliminate any ability to get through a week on the road, let alone a year.

Spencer Spellman, one of the 4 panelists sitting at the front of the room took the mike and may have had the most unintentionally hilarious and critically revealing moment of the night. He directed the attention to a photo of himself projected on the screen behind him. “I’m wearing that same shirt, tonight,” he said. The photo was of him on a boat on a river in the middle of Costa Rica midway through his round-the-world tour, and he was indeed wearing that very same shirt as he sat in San Francisco and talked to all of us. But he called attention to it with such a matter-of-fact acceptance that challenged everyone in the room to reconsider their ideas on belongings and happiness.

For me this was the essence of the solution to the packing problem. Spencer decided that it didn’t matter what he wore as long as he was traveling, and it translated over to how we was able to fit a year’s worth of personal items in 45 liters of backpack. He had faced the long-term traveler’s dilemma – that you must get rid of nearly all your stuff – and it crushed any opposing mindset. Only possession decimation brings you closer to where you want to go. Okay I’m going to come right out and say it: travel is, in its most refined essence, more important than the collective value of the things you own.

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Sometimes I have trouble with the idea of packing minimalism, but there are places to turn. Last year Rolf Potts famously circumnavigated the globe without any luggage at all, just a multi-pocketed vest, a change of underwear (let’s hope), and a positive attitude. This of course was taking the minimalist idea to the ultimate extreme, probably to prove the point that you don’t need all that stuff, and what you think you’ll need may not actually be what you will need when it comes down to it. Anyway, minimalist packing advice abounds on the Internet.

There in that crowded room I wanted to start a conversation about Minimalism and what it meant to people getting ready to start a trip, how each one of them were dealing with an imminent move from a culture where what one owns is a direct measurement of their success, into places where those very same items represent an acute liability to their success, but I didn’t bring it up. I somehow felt confident that good planners will turn to resources that will tell the truth in these matters.

How do you pack your life in a 21-inch suitcase? The answer lies in the perception of what you think you need to live, making hard choices and then, one by one, removing the extra.

When it’s all over, those four shirts you come home with will suddenly be a testament to your ability to live without the rest, leaving only a sense of accomplishment and a liberating freedom from you possessions in their place.

8 responses to “Thoughts on Minimalism and Packing Light – a travel philosophy

  1. Great post and thanks for the mention! I first traveled for a couple months before going back home briefly with the main reason to unload. I literally took out half that was in my piece of luggage. If I needed anything, I could always buy it, especially since in some of the countries I was in, things were cheaper.

  2. Thanks for linking to our packing post. We find it really easy now to travel with just a carry on backpack (mine is 30 litres and Simon’s is 40 litres) as we have been travelling for years. It definitely gets easier as you realise what you can live without, and you just accept that you’ll be wearing the same clothes all the time.

  3. I love the timing of this post. I just wrote a post today about how I am definitely not a minimalist and after 2+ months on the road, I am craving a larger suitcase over my 55L backpack. I miss having multiple clothing options! :)

    • Thanks for the comment Katie. At the risk of sounding sexist, I do feel like guys (in general) have an easier time carrying fewer clothing choices – traveling with 3 shirts isn’t as big a deal as it might be to say, some of the women I’ve known who tend to angle toward the fashionable. When you travel there’s definitely some painful sacrifices that need to be made (the shoes!), lest you turn into a turtle with your house on your back.

  4. I did a 9 month RTW trip with 15kg of luggage. I found I didn’t miss anything- in fact, there were a couple things I could have done without. I had all my toiletries, jewelry, makeup, a dress, and even 4 pairs of shoes. Before the trip, I went through several iterations of laying everything out, and then consciously removing things from the pile. Yes, I was wearing the same clothes in all my pictures too, but it’s a small price to pay for the mobility! And like Spencer said, if anything was missing, you could always find it on the road (same goes if you want to refresh the wardrobe selection!).

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  6. I will never ever ever take more than a carry-on on any trip – a resolution sparked by a seemingly endless delay at the Cancun airport, where the baggage conveyer had broken down. It’s easier for warmer climes, of course, but even a month in chillier weather is a snap – even for us girls ;-) – with some key versatile pieces like a pashmina and plenty of layers that do double duty for warmth and style.

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