Travel Tips, part 6, or, leave it home

Posted in Travel at 13:28 by RjZ

I’m packing for another trip. It’s not like it takes long to do; I almost never carry much more than a small book-bag for personal travel abroad. People who are amazed by how little I bring usually haven’t traveled very much yet. Everything you’ve read in those guide books is true: lay out everything you intend to bring with you and then get rid of half of it!

So, for these two weeks in Thailand, here’s a look into my backpack:

  • I’ll be wearing a pair of light trail-running shoes, some socks, a pair of quick-drying pants, a plain quick-drying shirt, and a light, long-sleeved button down shirt over that. The rest is in the pack.
  • three pairs of socks
  • three pairs of underwear
  • one more pair of pants
  • one more plain t-shirt
  • toothbrush, floss, battery operated razor, some extra toilet paper, a few small bottles of soap and shampoo; my Dr. Bronner’s use it for everything soap is in too large of a container to take on the plane!
  • foam ear plugs
  • a few ibuprofen, immodium, and other simple medications
  • a camp towel, it’s a tiny absorbant thing that doesn’t work very well, but I keep taking it
  • a pair of sandals that are actually too heavy, but at least are tough enough to hike all day in
  • a light, thin, shell (unlined jacket) for rain
  • a thin fleece
  • swim trunks. I never need these, but they pack small, and if you’re European and think you can make a speedo work, hey, that’ll pack even smaller. Above all, they’re something to wear while everything else is being washed.
  • a drawstring bag that I can use to throw stuff in and take my backpack with me for day trips. It can also double as a souvenir bag. The only reason I bring this, though, is because I already have too many cheap bags that are super easy to get in many places.
  • guide book. If there’s loads of extra room, I might even bring another book for the long train rides. I shouldn’t though.

I’ll also be bringing way too much camera stuff. This goes against everything I am going to write here, but it’s an experiment for this trip, to see if there really is much reason to bring the extra stuff…after all, I’m carrying so little otherwise I can make the exception. (trap! that’s how it starts!)

  • a separate, way too large, camera bag with SLR camera, extra lens, flash (am I crazy?), memory extra batteries and chargers.

It rains in tropical Thailand and it might end up being cold in the north during our trekking. I can’t claim that my trail runners and shell are going to be enough for this travel, but they ought to be work…a little discomfort will make for a better story later. It’s a compromise, after all, do you really want to wear (or worse, carry) heavy boots for two weeks in the tropics, so that you’ll be better off during three days of hiking?

The problem is that there are so many reasons to bring that extra shirt, or that extra electronic gadget. But carrying a big back-pack can also be a barrier to actually seeing a place. Bored with the few clothes you brought? Buy new ones! They’re often cheap and make fun souvenirs. What about clothes for going out? I don’t bother much; I am tired from all the sight-seeing, but if I do, I just wear the darker of the two plain t-shirts. It’s hardly high-fashion, but it passes as hip in many places. I am going to wedding on this trip, so I’ll be wearing the button-up over shirt for that. If I were a part of the wedding, this would obviously not be enough, but how much can people really expect of someone who’s traveled so far in the first place?

Hair dryers and gel? How nice do I need to look while sweating in the tropics? Just two shirts; just four pairs of underwear and socks? They actually have sinks in most hotels. That’s why I sprung for the quick-drying stuff! In many countries having someone launder your clothes (often by bashing them with rocks and then laying them out on the grass to dry) is quite affordable and they come back with the life pressed out of them. (Looking to experience razor creases on your underwear? Launder them in India.) iPods? How are you going to hear the sounds of this crazy new place with headphones on? And when you really need to block out sound, those little foam earplugs sure are much lighter. By the way, you might want to read that guide book and see if the spaghetti strapped halter top that really does pack so light and is so comfortable will get you anything other than uncomfortable stares from the locals. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you; they’ll know you’re a tourist from a mile away anyway, but why have even more barriers between you and the people you’re trying to meet?

Carrying a backpack that is too large to just fit on your lap means risking losing it on the top of a van, or being terrified it’s going to be taken every time the bus stops. It means taking the first hotel you can get to because you’re sick of sweating and checking out the next one. It means bumping into people at lines in the bus or not being able to board the bus at all because of this crazy thing. It means making yourself into a target for people praying on tourists and it means you have more to keep track of everywhere you go and every time you pack for another hotel.

One reason you’ve spent so much money and flown so far is to see something new and have new experiences. Looking your best while worrying about your gear and being unable to hear someone you bumped into because of your iPod headphones isn’t going to make that happen. And by the way, unless you really are traveling to a remote village in a little visited part of the world; guess what, they have clothes, soap, and most everything else you need where your headed, even if it isn’t the brand you’re used to. If only I could heed my own advice and leave most of that camera gear. I’ll let you you know in a later post how stupid that experiment was.


  1. Mike said,

    January 9, 2008 at 15:14

    Perhaps your most interesting post to date, thanks for the in depth analysis and theory of packing! I use the same reasoning to convince myself to pack light, but it doesn’t always have the best success rate. I’ll make a point of rereading this before i go on my next trip.

  2. RjZ said,

    January 10, 2008 at 9:36

    Crap! I lied…I actually *did* pack my bag yesterday and a few more things wound up in there…but it’s still a tiny book-bag! Here’s what’s changed:

    1. I found some Dr. Bronner’s soap in smaller bottles. It’s not enough for the whole trip, but I removed some soap and shampoo in trade for this little guy.
    2. There’s also sunblock in a small-resealable container that I use for camping.
    3. I changed the fleece out for a much thinner long sleeve ‘performance’ tee.
    4. I am bringing a foldable, floppy, broad brimmed hat. I always bring it, and it’s light, but hey, this is full disclosure here.
    5. Nylon rain pants. These were awesome on cold busses and on the one cold day in Egypt. Slip them on over your existing pants and voila, extra warmth in a tiny package.
    6. Let’s not forget my passport! a notebook and cheap pens, and credit cards, and a hidden belt-pouch thing that’s annoying, but you get used to after a while.

    This new-fangled gear makes bringing extra crap much too easy. Good news, is that my pack never gets bigger and that’s 50% of the point of the original post!

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