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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

People of the Bag
The Joy of Traveling Light
Paul Otteson

Millions of travelers never know...
...the pleasures of traveling light because they never try it. From their first overloaded backpack trip to their last Samsonite bus tour, they pack according to a might-want-it philosophy: "I might want this, I might want that…" It's an attitude that traces all the way back to the womb where concerned fetuses fret over the capacity of placentas to keep them nourished. Those who never get past it are what I call, people of the bag.

I am such a person—a man of the bag. I've been a minor gear head for as long as I can remember. I used to pore over the latest REI catalog, practically drooling, my index finger twitching in anticipation of dialing the 800 number to place an order. When it came time for a trip, all of my well loved gear would beg to be included in my overlarge pack. Nine times out of ten, I'd give in. I cut a splendid figure in campsites all around North America, but getting to and from those sites that was an unnecessary hell.

It's not all that easy to become a true light packer. The problem is attitude. You've probably seen it if you haven't lived it. "Damn," says a suddenly distressed traveler. "I forgot my AC converter for Liechtenstein! Now I can't plug in my travel iron. I can't get dressed. I can't go to dinner. I'll starve!" Our adapter-less diner's problem is that he travels defensively. Subconsciously, he views his baggage as armor that protects him from the dangers of foreign lands. His suitcase is his fortress—his womb. God help him if he gets robbed.

In order to achieve the freedom of movement and spirit enjoyed by the light packer, that attitude must be changed. Your pack, duffel or suitcase is neither fortress nor womb. It is a troublesome servant that causes you pain in direct proportion to its weight and bulk. It must be tamed and reduced, and taught to stay out of your way. Your bag is a greedy mouth that will swallow useless, trivial, and unneeded items if not ruthlessly controlled. It will whisper to you that it can hold one more thing, but be silent thereafter, failing to inform you of the dead weight hidden away in nooks and crevices.

Do I exaggerate? I think not! Long ago, I discovered the liberation of light packing. Even though I can't always travel as lightly as I like, I know what it's about. Can you walk for a day through the Irish hills, toting all your gear, and arrive at the pub at the end of the day with an evening's worth of glad energy and a song in your heart? As you seek about in a new city, schlepping your gear from train station to tourist office to overbooked hostel to overpriced hotel, are you as happy as Captain Cook in a new land? Can you get all your stuff onboard the plane without having to check a bag?? The light packer's answer to all is "yes!"

And what happens when the light packer gets robbed, or her pack falls off the bus roof into a Andean canyon, or he leaves his rucksack on a taxi in Beijing? He or she deals effectively, that's what, because the light packer isn't married to gear like a turtle to its shell.

The trick of light-packing is to switch from a might-want to a must-have mentality. Think of how this attitude switch will apply to items you might pack. Might you want a flashlight, or must you have it? How about a razor or a compass? Count down your clothing quantities: "Must I have 6 pairs of socks? 5 pairs? 4? 3?" At each step, you'll engage in a reasoning process that will finally yield an answer.

As you trim your list down, always remember that money will solve almost any mistake, almost anywhere in the world. That 4th pair of socks you didn't pack can be purchased on the road. Shopping can be a lot of fun anyway, as can internationalizing your wardrobe. Of course, if your 3-week trip is to a resort on the Baltic where bellhops carry your bags and there's a state dinner every night, you might be buying the 10th pair, not the 4th.

Here's a list of items commonly carried by travelers that true light packers may very well leave behind:

Sleeping Bag & Pad
Camp Stove
Cooking/Eating Utensils
Cold Weather Clothes
Wet Weather Clothes
'Nice' Clothes
Extra Guidebooks
Most First Aid Stuff
Cards and Games
Outlet Adapters
Sewing Kit

Inflatable Pillow
Nail Clipper
Pack Lock
Big Camera (or any camera)
Photos of Home
Repair Kits
Shampoo (or any soap)
Sketch Pad or Journal
Travel Alarm and Watch
Walkman and CDs or Tapes
GPS device
First Aid kit
Cell phones
Palm devices
Video cameras

How many of the above are standard items in your travel pack?

At least once in your life, you should make packing light your top priority. Sure, you won't be carrying a lot of items that you 'might want', but you'll discover the wonders of featherweight travel. Once discovered, you'll have a better perspective on more moderate packing, as well as the courage to give things away or ship them home when the weight becomes an irritant.

Pack light, travel happy, live long.


Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com