Friday, July 20, 2007

Traveling Light

Packing light offers less tangible but very real benefits. It's a chance to pare down and simplify our lives, to discover what is truly essential and what is not. It's a reminder that we're more than the sum of our possessions.
John Flinn

This is a life lesson I've learned many times in my travels.  I am reminded of this again as I sit here getting ready to fly out in a few hours for a 10-day trip visiting friends in Orlando and Puerto Rico.

Over the years, I've traveled to nearly 30 countries and in the process made it to all 7 continents without checking a bag.  In fact, I've only checked a bag once since 1998 when my brother and I brought a bunch of hiking gear up to the Adirondacks for a week of camping.

The benefits to traveling small and light are numerous.  I find the less stuff I bring, the more I tend to enjoy the journey.  I have never been on a trip where I wished I had more stuff and many times wished I did not have so much.

Tim Ferriss is a man after my own heart.  He takes it to the next level, traveling with only ~ 10 pounds of stuff. (HT Lifehacker)

Follow the link for a detailed list of what he brings.

While I've not quite got my packing list as small as Tim's, we both employ similar ideas and similar gear.  I usually bring more clothing than what he recommends, but as odd as it sounds, you can travel the world with only three pairs of underwear (one to wear, one to wash, and one -- well, just in case).  Some, like Tim, will travel with only two pair.  If you're going this route, make sure to get some odor-resistant, quick-dry travel underwear.  I highly recommend Tilley's.

Other items Tim and I would agree on include:

  • Sport sandals -- I have a pair of Chaco's I bought for my trip to the Amazon jungle in 2002.  They are still holding up splendidly despite nearly daily use in the summer.  They are a bit heavier than Tim's reef sandals, but they've served me so well I hate to switch to something else.
  • Marmot jacket -- Tim brings a 3-oz. Ion and I've been using one similar to the PreCip.  With a good, water-proof jacket, you can usually make due without an umbrella.  It has the added benefit of giving both warmth and rain protection.  (After reading Tim's post, I bought a Marmot Ion jacket on sale Wednesday for $25 at Hudson Trail Outfitters in Fairfax.  It weights practically nothing and packs down to the size of a fist.)
  • A small flashlight -- Tim uses a Mag-Lite Solitaire.  I prefer a Petzl Tikka headlight -- it lets me go hands-free (particularly useful in a hostel or when hiking at night) and the strap has let me hang it on a shower curtain rod during a power outage.  It's great for camping too.
  • Sony VAIO TX Series Laptop -- While I have been less than happy with Sony's technical support, there's no doubt my Sony TX-750 is one of the lightest, slimmest laptops on the market and a prefect size and weight for someone looking to travel light.

Other stuff I take includes:

  • Ecco Shoes -- These are by far the best pair of shoes I've ever owned.  They are lined with GORE-TEX, have a gripping bottom, and a comfortable base in the foot.  They look nice enough to wear to the office, but are also rugged enough to go into the jungle.  I've worn them to Antarctica, into the jungles of Panama, all over Europe, Japan, Namibia, New Zealand, Australia, and India.  They've been in tons of churches, temples, museums, castles, caves, and on many mountains.  If you're carrying a relatively light load, they even make a good substitute for hiking boots.  Between these and my Chaco's, I'm prepared for just about any situation.  (When I travel by airplane, I'll wear the shoes with the sandals in my bag.)
  • Travel Socks -- Like the travel underwear, these are very durable, odor resistant, and dry overnight.  I also bring one pair of sock-liners in case I have a chance of doing some hiking.  (Sock liners weigh next to nothing and can be worth their weight in gold for preventing blisters.)
  • A few packages of Woolite, a sink-stopper, and lightweight clothesline -- Just fill-up a sink and wash your quick-drying clothes in it and hang them up at night to dry.  This more than anything is the key to traveling light.
  • Bathing suit -- Always pack a bathing suit, even if you don't think you'll need it.  I once took an unexpected side-trip to Hawaii on my way back from Japan and having this was a life-saver.  Same goes for when I volunteered to get bumped coming back from Germany and got put up in a very nice hotel with spa and Jacuzzi.  For men, you can get a pair that doubles as shorts and/or PJ's.
  • Small roll of duct tape -- Dozens of uses including covering blisters on the trail.
  • Fleece jacket -- I always bring this even if it's not expected to be cold where I'm going.  It's been a life-saver on more than one occasion (such as in the rain in the jungle) and also works well as a pillow.  It's lightweight, but can be a bit bulky.  When used in conjunction with my jacket (and possibly a sweater), I can usually comfortably endure temperatures down to about freezing by layering my clothes.
  • One or two pairs of zip-off hiking pants -- these have legs that zip-off and turn into shorts.  The pants are lightweight, dry quickly, are rugged, and can be used as a bathing suit in a pinch.  (I used a pair for swimming when I went cliff-diving in Namibia.)
  • Quick-drying clothing -- Shirts, pants, socks, and undies.  The importance of this is severalfold.  First, it lets you travel with less clothing than otherwise by washing things in the sink and drying them overnight.  Second, if you get wet, you dry out much faster.  I got caught in a rainstorm in Nagasaki, Japan once while wearing a cotton polo shirt and khaki pants.  I was wet and miserable all day long.  Ex Officio is probably my favorite brand for this type of travel clothing.
  • Travel Pack -- One of the first items I bought when I first began my career as an engineer was a high-quality travel pack (a backpack that turns into a suitcase).  It has been with me on every international trip I've ever taken and I can't bring myself to part from it.  It's stood up to over a decade of intense travel and, while starting to show a bit of wear, is still incredibly reliable and like my security blanket when I'm away from home.  It's sized for carry-on and easily fits into most overhead bins on airplanes as well as most lockers in train stations, bus stations, and hostels.  Be sure to invest in high quality luggage.  I had the handle of a rolling-bag break on me on a trip in Japan in 1998.  That's what convinced me to travel carry-on only ever after.  It's great to have everything you need to keep track of on your back, particularly if you're running to catch a train or bus...

Some other tricks of the trade:

  • Layer clothing in colder weather -- Even when I went to Antarctica, I used my Marmot jacket and fleece in conjunction with a couple of layers of Ibex wool, rain pants, and long johns underneath.  (I also rented a GORE-TEX dry suit for kayaking which also fit in my carry-on.)  This combination kept me plenty warm and allowed me to adjust as needed when the weather got warmer or colder.  The same principle applies in all situations and helps cut down on the number of jackets you need to bring.
  • Improvise when you need something you don't have -- I once had a job interview with Hitachi just outside New York City.  I ended up staying an extra night in a youth hostel near Times Square.  I didn't have a towel with me and so I used a cheap cotton t-shirt I had with me instead, throwing it out when I was done.  (It didn't have time to dry before I went to the airport.)
  • Use a USB thumb drive -- This can be a lightweight alternative to carrying a laptop, particularly if you will be near Internet cafes or staying in places with Internet access.

My two weaknesses -- Books and Electronics:

  • Books -- I've written about this before.  I have a tough time parsing down my reading list to what's a good mix.  At a minimum, I'll take a travel guide for the location(s) I'm visiting, a Bible, and at least one good book to read.  I especially enjoy reading about something related to my trip.  (For example, I read Endurance while in Antarctica and Call of the Wild during my trip to Alaska.)  It helps me to get my mind into the environment and adds to the feeling of adventure.  Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of bringing more books than I can read and often acquire more along the way...
  • Electronics -- I have a love/hate relationship with electronics while traveling.  Here are some of my thoughts:
    • Laptops -- I'm always torn about whether or not to bring a laptop.  They are great for journaling (I type far faster than I can write) and for storing digital pictures, but they can also be heavy, require constant looking after (you don't want someone walking off with it when you stay in a hostel), require frequent recharging, and mean you have to be more careful with your luggage.  (You don't want porters throwing your bag with a laptop in it into the back of a dusty truck, hike with it through mud in a jungle, or watch it fall off the back of a pack animal.)
    • MP3 Players -- While iPods can be a great travel tool, I also find they can isolate you from the sounds of a new environment and potential interactions with people around you.  (White iPod headphones can also make you a target of potential thieves.)  A couple things I don't like about the iPod is that it requires iTunes to download music onto them, meaning a you have to have a laptop too if you want to download a new audiobook, music, or podcast onto it while on the road.  (I'm aware of a few work-arounds for this, but they all come with some limitations.)  If you don't take a lot of pictures, you can also use your iPod to store digital photos in lieu of a laptop, but I've had issues with the speed of the data transfer from my camera.  (I'm hoping the new iWay is a better solution than the old camera connector, but haven't had a chance to test it out yet.)  For travels to the developing world, I'd probably prefer a smaller flash-based MP3 player that's compatible with Audible audiobooks that has drag-and-drop MP3 playing, runs off of AAA batteries (no recharging necessary), and has a built-in voice recorder.  (I captured some wonderful audio clips of kids singing in Africa with a PDA I brought with me.  They are priceless reminders of that wonderful experience.)
    • Digital Cameras -- I will never travel without a digital camera.  This is one area I am willing to put up with whatever inconveniences are necessary for bringing this along.  More than anything else, pictures and journaling are fantastic ways to share adventures with others and remind yourself of experiences you've had.  Photos are my souvenirs and I got in the habit long ago of e-mailing my travel journals to my friends and family during my adventures.  I now have enough of them to put together into a book.  It's a great way to share the adventure with loved ones and gives a good excuse for contacting people you haven't been in touch with for a while and I would argue they make the journeys more personally enjoyable.  Here is some previous thoughts I've written about digital cameras.  I bought my first digital SLR earlier this year before my last trip to Orlando and love it.  The drawbacks of it are the large size and lack of video recording (I have videos of me in Antarctica with penguins and others of Indian kids singing that are precious to me), but it also has very strong advantages of better image quality, quicker photo-taking (less missed shots), and (perhaps most importantly) unparalleled battery life (I can probably get ~ 1,000 shots out of one battery).  I've been in situations overseas where I've had to wait several days between charging camera batteries.  I've gotten around this by carrying up to three fully-charged camera batteries with me, but the digital SLRs reduce this to one spare battery.  (Never travel without at least one spare!)
    • Cell Phones -- When I travel domestically, I bring mine.  When I travel internationally, I don't.  (Mine doesn't have international roaming.)  In the future, I could envision me acquiring a phone I could use internationally and traveling with it.  Keep in mind that sometimes part of the fun of travel is getting disconnected from the rest of the world.

Other advice from around the web:

Well, I better wrap this up and get back to my packing.  I need to figure out what else not to bring on my trip!

Remember, above all else, the number one thing to take on a trip of any length is a positive attitude.  A little optimism and flexibility will make nearly any trip into a fun one.  Not only that, but it weighs next to nothing and takes up no extra space!

Some of my previous travel posts:

1 comment:

thinking said...

One great travel companion: the new iPhone. You have a world class web browser and with email, this will enable some to not have to take their laptop with them. The photo album in the iPhone is amazing, and of course, you have your iPod audio and video features. It's a computer, entertainment device, and cell phone all in one.