The Super-Ultimate Zero-Item Packing List of a 6-Year-Traveler
the distilled truth about packing after 70 months on the road
When I started my journey in May 2012 I looked like a turtle. Gargantuan Galapagos turtle. I had fed my backpack to unhealthy-looking BMI levels, and strapped a duffle bag around its obese waist – much like a traveler’s fanny pack – to provide the additional wardrobe rations I desperately needed to travel in style. More than 20 shirts, 15 t-shirts, 7 pairs of trousers, several pairs of shoes, gadgets, keepsakes etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. embarked with me.
I thought that I’d be gone for a year and so I had packed accordingly: as much as possible. It didn’t take long for my aching bones to groan a new definition of accordingly: "as little as possible, please, we are hurting."
I hadn’t read the brimming blogger’s library of packing-related travel advice, or any advice for that matter. This was my journey, and I didn’t want to deprive myself of making my own stupid mistakes along the way, or before even stepping out of the door. A guide book was probably the only superfluous thing I hadn’t packed.
"We have mustered the privileged courage to wave our comfort zone goodbye, so why are we so afraid of making puny packing decisions?"
When I made my debut as a travel writer, about 4 years into my journey, I was baffled by the abundance of travel blogs that dispense allegedly indispensable advice, with packing guides being a particularly popular category of generic counseling. I have yet to find a travel blog without its own packing list and “hacks,” (painful cringe), vigorously shoving readers towards product shelves where they can buy the travel wardrobe, gear, and gadgets nobody could possibly survive without on the road.
It’s hardly surprising – after all, these blogs are money machines powered by affiliate marketing. You follow them into the online stores of their featured brands and they get a nice commission upon dropping you off there; click click, ka-ching ka-ching, win win. There is just no space for a third wheeler like you in this win-win romance between blogger and brand – you don’t get the best travel advice, but whatever sells. Because the truth is simple and comes for free:
!!!! Extreme travel hack !!!!
someone else’s packing list is as useful to you as someone else's shopping list, to do list, or Santa wishlist
Would you want me to choose the outfit you wear tomorrow, or the household item you buy next? I’m a total stranger who knows nothing about your personality, your needs, or your plans. So why is it that once we embark on a so-called adventure, finally crossing the tight frontiers of norms and rules, we can’t even dress ourselves? We have mustered the privileged courage to wave our comfort zone goodbye, so why are we so afraid of making puny packing decisions?
I wear jeans and a leather jacket, maybe you prefer a hiking combo. I use a certain camera, but I’m sure another one would do just as well. I love my backpack – it’s been my buddy for almost 6 years and every time it shuffles towards me on an airport’s conveyor belt, I smile. It’s great quality too. But hey, you gotta find your own buddy, no?
I can say these things because MilesAstray is fueled by authenticity, not affiliate marketing. My best advice is usually no advice, along the lines of "do your own thing." Of course, “do your own thing” can also mean reading up on packing tips before traveling as much as you want, if you think it helps. Apparently, there is an unquenchable thirst for such travel advice, which the blogging world caters to gladly and in the most superficial and generalizing ways, as though every journey was the same. It’s the demand that surprises me, not its monetization by digital nomads. Traveling is a highly individual experience, so whatever you will need depends on your personal journey entirely.
Well, that is if you ask common sense. If you ask travel bloggers, most will hurl the same packing guide at you, typically labeled the “ultimate packing list”: high quality lightweight clothing, hiking gear, bla bla bla. I’ve hiked the Himalayas in jeans, and the Andes with holes in my soles and plastic bags wrapped around my feet; I made it out of there alive. Moreover, the locals who traverse these mountains every single day certainly don’t sport expensive clothing lines. It’s not like you’ll pull any survival missions in the wild. Also, if you travel for awhile you might not always want to look like the goofy tourist you are.
"They have stores at the other end of the world, no matter which end that is, so there’s no need for any pre-departure packing nervousness."
Yet, even though I personally find anything tailor-made for traveling or the "outdoors" redundant, I’m not trying to make a case against a shiny hiking combo, funky gadgets or the latest travel apps. The point is that I’m not making any cases for anything apart from you figuring out for yourself how you want to travel and what you need to pack for your trip. Sure, if you haven’t traveled before it’s basically impossible to know exactly what you will need; yet, another person’s packing list will be of little use – nobody but your very own gusto and road can tell you what to pack and what to leave behind. Improvising is not only key, but there is simply no way around it. I can assure you that you’ll be fine if you pack whatever you think is right for your trip, leave behind whatever turns out to be ballast and buy locally whatever is missing. They have stores at the other end of the world, no matter which end that is, so there’s no need for any pre-departure packing nervousness.
I always admired ridiculously worry-free travelers with holey and quirky packing habits: the Scottish girls that came to the Andes without socks; Bennett who didn’t bring a sweater when he arrived with but a daypack; or Ran who traveled with a cactus, a hookah and a chicken.
My turtle shell came off three months into the trip when I was held at gunpoint. These guys took almost all my stuff including the backpack itself, but in a way I’m grateful for it and it’s not Stockholm syndrome making me say that. It’s very difficult to let go of things – losses loom larger than gains as they say in psychology – but once your stuff is simply gone, stolen or accidentally left behind, it’s easy to live without it. I’ve lost my fair share of things over the years, and even the deliberate choice of leaving something behind got easier with time and a more and more minimalistic attitude and attire.
I’m confident that I can leave you to your packing now, without giving you an actual list of all my stuff. But if you really must know, read on for my super-ultimate packing guide with the very best insider tips and hacks out there:
Backpack: bought locally after pirates stole the meticulously researched ideal pack I had brought from home; 70 liters I believe / insider tip: more volume is for hoarders, less for spartans
Tent: bought second hand off another traveler; broken fiberglass poles replaced after 4 years with a roughly 100 times heavier iron construction by a local blacksmith / insider tip: try to get a hold of iron if you want to add a pinch of medieval torture device to your luggage
Diary: carrying about 7 notebooks by now, most of which never in use, but make me feel like a writer; one is my diary, which covers only the first 6 months of my 6 year trip, but looks kinda cool / insider tip: if you write smaller and smaller to save space in your first notebook because you think you’ll actually keep it up and don't want to carry around 7 notebooks, your writing will look like a mix of serial killer madman and artsy calligrapher
Keepsakes (gifts, some pre-departure, most post-departure): quite a collection and maybe a third of my luggage’s weight / insider tip: don’t make friends if you don’t want to drag along their stupid presents
Jeans: down to one pair as of today / insider tip to myself: look into getting another pair hobo
Underwear: a variety from different lands and chapters; current status: running low on boxers, but doing surprisingly well on socks for once / insider tip: MilesAstray recommends underwear whenever you’re not going commando
T-shirts: 2-4 right now, depending on whether I count the ones with big holes, which need replacement sometime soon / insider tip: unicolored T-shirts without patterns, prints or brand labels are surprisingly hard to get in many parts of the world, so stack up if you are a fan of nonchalant simplicity
Shirts: 3, but the navy blue one is definitely my favorite and so I always wear that one / insider tip: shirts combine the T-shirtness of T-shirts with sleeves, which can be rolled up though
Hat, gloves, scarf: come and go with the seasons / insider tip: a beanie keeps the hipster warm in winter and cool in summer
Shoes: running shoes (never in use), boots (always in use when not in the tropics), 1 $ Flip Flops (almost always in use when in the tropics) / insider tip: shoes rock socks
Sweater: 1, which I should probably wash more often, but I don’t want my one sweater to shrink / insider tip: black is the new black
Leather jacket: sweet custom-made piece from along the road; heavy and useless in terms of anything but looking sharp / insider tip: a timeless fashion classic that needs backup from a proper jacket
Proper jacket: one out of two nostalgic pieces of wardrobe left from back home / insider tip: can function as a pillow, just like any other piece of clothing
Sleeping bag: I got 2, which is 1-2 more than needed depending on your travel-style, but one is only an inlet, which I bought pre-departure and thought would be enough until I camped out in the Andes and had to snuggle my friend all night long to keep warm, and the other one, which I ordered online at some point, is not for super cold weather, but together they kind of team up and it’s kind of a long story and I think you got the gist / insider tip: only really needed when camping or in the mood for cocooning
Cell phone: 4th phone on this trip / insider tip: spent one year without phone, which, against all odds, neither led to withdrawal symptoms, nor to spiritual enlightenment
Laptop: 4th laptop on this trip thanks to robbers, pick pockets and the shortlivedness of electronics / insider tip: being a digital nomad without a laptop would make you a nomad
Camera: 3rd one on this trip; helps me take pictures / insider tip: can also help you take pictures
Headphones: arguably some of my best friends / insider tip: ♫
Toiletries / Accessories: Seriously, I can't. I'm outta here / insider tip: get outta there
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