The Way of the Hermit Crab: 4 Rules for Better Backpack Living
by Robert Evans
Though we all begin life bare-ass naked and devoid of any possessions, none of us stay that way for long. The doctor swaddles us in a cozy new blanket, cooing relatives hand us stuffed animals and baby toys, while mommy and daddy shower us with gifts and buy us whole wardrobes of clothing.
As we grow older, we accumulate more Stuff at an exponential rate. By the time we move out of our second womb (Mom and dad’s house) and into the real world, most of us have enough Stuff to fill up a small apartment (or at least a dorm room).
The desire to acquire more and more Stuff is hardwired into the human psyche. That’s why the average person lives a more or less stationary existence. Most people pick one spot on the map as the place to while away the bulk of their days. They buy homes, cars, and mountains of consumer goods in order to construct a comforting illusion of permanence and control.
It’s entirely possible to live for months at a time out of twenty pounds (or less) of gear in a backpack.
The Traveler by necessity lives a very different sort of life. For him, possessions aren’t a safety blanket, but an anchor. You can only comfortably hike with so much weight, and checking heaps of bags at the airport is a waste of time and money. Most of the things we think we need are actually dead weight; it’s entirely possible to live for months at a time out of twenty pounds (or less) of gear in a backpack.
I’ve learned a few tricks for living well while traveling light, and every trip I take teaches me new ways to improve on my set-up. Consider this article my way of paying it forward to less experienced travelers. If you follow these four rules, you can keep the amount of bullshit you lug around to a minimum, without sacrificing any essential comforts. But if you can afford the comfort of luxury travel and boutique hotels, then these rules don't really apply to you.
#1: Find Out What ‘Essential’ Really Means
It doesn’t take much to keep a person going. If you’re staying in hostels or hotels every night, you could conceivably get by with a couple changes of clothes stuffed in a rucksack and nothing more. Of course, a backpack full of clothing isn’t going to be nearly enough for most travelers. Even the lightest packer will want to bring along a few books to manage his boredom and a camera to record his adventures.
Your first step before packing for any trip should be to write out a list of your ‘essentials’. Find out what things you absolutely need on hand in order to be comfortable on your journey. If life without it won’t make you miserable, then don’t bring it. Try to keep your list of essentials to no more than five or six things.
For example, my essentials are:
- 2 changes of clothing
- contact solution/spare contacts
- my laptop and netbook (I work while I travel)
- a book for pre-flight reading
If I have all of that and nothing more, I can enjoy myself indefinitely overseas.
#2: If You Can Find It There, Buy It There
This obviously doesn’t apply to expensive items like laptops and cameras. I’m directing this one at the obsessive-compulsive packer, who has to bring something for every conceivable situation. Sure, if you haul that bag of beach gear with you on your trip to Galway you might end up using it, but it’s more likely you’ve just added ten pounds to your pack for no good reason.
Many novice travelers try to prepare for every possible situation and wind up loaded down with pounds of unnecessary crap. Do you really need six towels? Or even two? What are the odds you’ll need back-up shoes? If your regular pair gets soaked, pick up some cheap loafers from a local store.
The same goes for things like spare batteries, extra changes of clothing, blankets, pillows and the like. If you really end up needing them, you’ll be able to find them easily in any reasonably developed country. Depending on where you travel to, you might even save money by buying it there.
#3: A Good Carry-on Bag Is Priceless
My laptop bag is fantastic. It’s got easy-access pockets for currency, cameras, phones, and water bottles, plus a spacious inner cavity that’s got enough room for my laptop, netbook, and odds and ends like a worldwide power converter. Everything important goes in my carry on bag, while my checked backpack only holds clothes. That way if the airline loses my baggage, I still have everything I need with me.
If you want to travel on the ultra-cheap, you might even look into packing everything you need in your carry-on bag. Ryanair offers incredibly low-cost flights to everywhere in Europe, as long as you don’t carry more than one piece of baggage. They’ve got very strict restrictions on how large that bag can be, and a weight limit of 10 kg.
Go on, test yourself. See if you can fit everything you need inside of a laptop bag or travel satchel and have it weigh in at less than 10 kg. If you can manage that, a whole new world of bargain bin exotic trips await you.
#4: Consolidate Your Entertainment by Going Digital
Are you a voracious reader? Does any long air trip for you necessitate a stack of books that outweighs the rest of your gear put together? If so, you need to look into picking up an e-Reader. An e-Reader is a tablet computer designed to be loaded up with hundreds of electronic copies of books. Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble both have e-Readers (the Kindle and the nook, respectively) and both have online stores filled with hundreds of thousands of e-book titles.
An average e-Reader will weigh a pound or two at most. That’s far, far, far less than the weight of several dozen paperback novels. You don’t have to use an e-Reader though. All e-books can also be read and displayed on laptops or netbooks. However you do it, converting the bulk of your reading material into an electronic form will save you a vast amount of space and weight.
The same is true for movies. Don’t bring a portable DVD player, or a bulky laptop and a big stack of DVDs. Buy your movies off iTunes or copy them from a DVD to your computer’s hard drive. You’ll be able to bring a lot more entertainment with you for no additional weight.
On the subject of laptops … avoid massive, seven pound machines with 17″ screens and virtually no battery life. Netbooks and CULV notebooks both offer 6-7 hours of battery life (some have much more) and usually weigh under five pounds. Most don’t have an optical drive, but if you’ve ripped your DVDs to your hard drive that won’t be a problem.
Obviously, these four rules don’t represent the final word on traveling light. The best way to learn how to live a portable life is to do it. Pack a bag or two and spend a few weeks living in a foreign country. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t, alter your list of essentials based on your own travel experiences. Living out of a backpack is an art, and as with all art the only way to get better at it is to practice.
Failures are how we improve. If you forget something crucial and have a miserable trip, you’ll be that much more likely to remember that thing next time around. In the end, the best way to learn how to be a world traveler is to do it. Get out there, have an adventure, and devise a few tricks of your own for living well without living large.
And don’t forget to post your hard-won lessons in the comments section below!
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About the Author
Robert Evans makes his living writing about dick jokes and smartphones whilst traveling around the world. He spends most of his time sampling regional intoxicants and trying not to offend anyone dangerous. His hobbies include barefoot running, experimenting with fire poi, and home brewed beer.