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Minimalist Travel Packing

FINCA TATIN, jungle, Guatemala- What a person needs to travel is slim, travel gear is often the last thing a traveler really requires. Two articles of clothing for the bottom half of your body, two for the top, two sets of undergarments, a pair of boots, sandals perhaps, a toothbrush, a bag to throw it [...]

FINCA TATIN, jungle, Guatemala- What a person needs to travel is slim, travel gear is often the last thing a traveler really requires. Two articles of clothing for the bottom half of your body, two for the top, two sets of undergarments, a pair of boots, sandals perhaps, a toothbrush, a bag to throw it all in, and you are ready to travel. You need nothing more. Don’t believe anyone who may say otherwise, don’t believe me when I try to get you to go to my Travel Gear Store.

Packing for travel can be a round the way endeavor, the process of just gathering up a small sample of what you use throughout your regular day and stuffing it into a bag is enough to suffice for a long journey just as it does going out for an overnight across town. If you need anything more when traveling, you can pick it up en route; if you don’t use something, then you can easily leave it behind. In this way, carrying travel gear is a very organic process, you plan for “now” and allow “later” to take care of itself. Travel gear should not be a complete collection of clothes, electronics, sleeping supplies that are set in stone, but a perpetually revolving door of things to be cycled through: you pick up one thing here and deposit it there, you buy a sweater for a couple of dollars in the mountains, you leave it behind when you reach the jungle.

Travel gear is ephemeral, there is little use attaching yourself to any of it: you will loose it, replace it, throw it out, leave it behind.

—————-

I walked into the room of my friend Paulo from Paulo Is Here on the night before his departure from the Finca Tatin. I was taken aback by what I saw:

Throughout his one year residence at the hotel, he had collected next to nothing. His room was bare, the blanched planks that made up its walls and floor had little covering them, there was only a little shelf against a wall that had a few things laid upon it. The sparse contents of the shelf was Paulo’s travel gear. It looked as if he had just arrived yesterday.

After a long bout of traveling through Europe, Asia, elsewhere, Paulo came to Mexico and Central America. He is from Maidera, but calls himself PT — perpetual traveler: he has not been to his island home for over ten years. By all accounts, this guy travels slowly. He stepped into the Finca Tatin last July with the intention of staying for two nights, he stayed for nearly a year. He became the hotel’s manager.

We have now switched roles: Chaya and I are filling in for him at the Finca Tatin, he is back to traveling. Before leaving, Paulo showed me his traveling gear.

The showing did not take very long.

In a single, small tote bag Paulo packed a pair of pants, two shirts, three books, a toothbrush, a small collection of rings and tiny things, a light blanket that was more or less a sheet, a pair of sandals, perhaps underwear, a small Acer computer, and a narguilla pipe which I think may have been gifted to him in Mexico. Nothing more.

I joked that I would have expected him to collect more things during his 11 months of working at the Finca Tatin. He laughed and stated that he had, in fact, collected more stuff, but that he was leaving everything unessential behind. He held up a single sweatshirt and pointed to a pair of khakis sitting in a corner to confirm his statement. He would not be needing these anymore where he was going, so he left them behind.

———————-

There are two schools of long term travel packing: “minimalist” packing, like I described above, and “maximalist” packing, which follows the premise that it is possible to carry almost everything you need to make a home on your back. Both styles, if done right, have their place. For many years, I was a minimalist packer, I would only carry what I absolutely needed in regards to the climate I was traveling in and in accordance with my modus operandi of locomotion. I would leave things behind as readily as I would acquire new things — my gear was perpetually evolving and revolving as I traveled.

I would only have a single small sack, a change of clothes, and little more. I would match my gear to the climate and leave behind anything that I no longer needed. I was mobile, my load was light, I could carry every thing on planes, keep it all in my lap on buses. My gear neither weighed heavy on my back nor on my mind.

This was a good way to travel, for my circumstances then.

Now, as I travel with a family and run my own business from the road, I want and need more things. I have now accumulated travel and electronic gear that I use regularly from the road. I suppose travel gear is the wrong word for what I now carry, I suppose “living gear” would be a much more appropriate nomer. I am making homes around the world, not just traveling through various brief stopping points. I want everything a home can provide, and be able to carry it on my back as well.

More on maxamalist packing coming soon.

Filed under: Travel Tips | Packing

Filed under: Travel Preparation, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

12 comments… add one

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  • Caitlin June 5, 2010, 1:02 pm

    I’m going to have to disagree with you (what a surprise.) At least when it comes to clothes.

    In my experience in every country I go to, people appreciate it and respond better to you if you are dressed nicely. (Not fancy, but neat and presentable.)

    Maybe I’m particularly gross or something, but if I wear the same two things over and over I’m going the clothes are going to look really ratty really fast.

    As a result, I find it is better to travel with more clothes so I can dress myself nicely. Sure, I could buy more clothes on the road (and I do sometimes) but that’s money spent when I could just bring more from my mountain of clothes at home (I am a girl, after all.)

    If you have found a way to travel with 2 articles of clothing and keep them looking ok, then that’s cool, and I want to know your secret.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 7, 2010, 12:21 pm

      T-shirt and jeans. At least I cannot tell if a person has been wearing the same jeans and t-shirt for a few hours or a few weeks. The smell is another story though. But if you rotate the two sets of clothes regularly and wash them each time, I have not noticed the smell being that big of a problem.

      In hot climates almost any type of clothing that you wear are going to look ratty and smell after a few hours of wearing them anyway. Unless you sit around like a doll all day you are going to look like crap when you travel no matter how many sets of clothes you have.

      Or at least this is my impression. Though I am not much for trying to look good. I suppose this is just a matter of preference, if you want a lot of clothes, bring them — though I have always had a difficult time keeping even clean clothes smelling and looking good after being stuffed inside of a rucksack.

      Though I suppose personal appearance does have a large bearing on how you are received — especially in poorer countries where the divisions between the upper and lower classes are thickly drawn. If you want to permeate into the professional spheres of a country dressing fashionably is a must. My t-shirts and jeans do not cut it. Though I also have no problem with being working class — it is where I come from, to mock anything else would be an overtly transparent lie.

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  • Caitlin June 7, 2010, 2:38 pm

    (Am I just arguing for the sake of arguing? Ha ha ha…)

    Well here’s the thing: in my experience, in most developing countries everyone – ESPECIALLY those that are poorer – take great effort to dress nicely (not necessarily “fancy” but nicely.) As such, they appreciate it when others follow suit.

    This does not mean that jeans and shirts aren’t appropriate. In most places, this is what people where when they are hanging out. But the jeans and t-shirts will almost always look neat and presentable.

    Anyways, maybe I am just messier than you are. I can’t seem to wear anything too many times without it getting all gross in the armpits (I’m not even that sweaty!) and having some sort of stain on it.

    You are right though, it is hard to keep everything nice in a rucksack, and I guess I’m speaking from a different place since I tend to stay in one place for awhile.

    I guess what I am really speaking about are the backpackers that most Guatemalans roll their eyes at. You know, the dirty ones who wear that same filthy hippie thai-style pants every day. Actually, these are the kind of foreigners that get eyes rolled at everywhere I’ve been. When I was in Burkina a few years ago, some local people said to my friend and I: “you guys shower more than any white people we know. We thought most white travelers were filthy.”

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 8, 2010, 7:43 pm

      I don’t think that you are arguing just for the sake of it. There are different systems and strategies for traveling and it seems as if you found one that is best for your style: you stay places for long durations, you work and interact in a more professional sphere. If you were traveling quickly for a long duration through many different places, moving with all of your gear often, then I guess that you may drop a good portion of your packed clothes (though, again, you are a girl hahaha so maybe not).

      For what you seem to do, Caitlin, it seems as if a collection of some nice clothes could be to your advantage. When you see the same people everyday in a somewhat “formal” setting, more than two sets of clothes could be essential.

      The great thing about strategies and systems for traveling is that they can constantly be adapted to suit changing circumstances. If I was going to travel fast for a few months, I would surely drop my load down to a small bag and only one additional set of clothes. But if I planed to stay somewhere and work as an English teacher or something, then I would probably go over to a second hand market and pick up a couple extra set of clothes.

      It is my impression that Paulo, the hero of this entry, may have accumulate a couple additional sets of clothes during his stay of working at the Finca Tatin. But he left these behind as he slimmed his load down for traveling.

      Different strategies, different amounts of gear.

      Your other point is a good one as well, though I must stand on both sides of it. Local people – especially in countries where dress is a sure sign of status – do dress nicely when “going out.” Though they also seem to spend all day everyday doing laundry haha (or have a grandma to do it for them). It is truly amazing how often laundry is done in this world. If a traveler was to do a little laundry by hand nightly, like Paulo, then there clothes will always be clean.

      On the other hand, everybody who is in the actual act of traveling is going to look rough and maybe even smell not so good. The local people look nice because they sit around all day through the heat and have a grandmother who washes their clothes each morning on a rock in the river. If they spent the day traveling, they would probably look the same as a backpacker haha.

      Though, in the end, I get your point. Traveling often removes people from the bounds of their home communities and opens up more room for action that would otherwise be considered transgressions: such as not showering and wearing old clothes. An English kid just came into the Finca where I am working wearing cut off military fatigues with a gaping hole in the crotch.

      It is not my impression that these shorts would be permitted in England, social pressure would probably force them into the bin.

      Though I suppose travelers find different strategies for different circumstances, I suppose.

      I know what you mean about how travel often allows people to get lazy in regards to personal appearance — but who is going to say otherwise? Community is often a major controlling force on behavior, and when traveling you are outside of your community — nobody will ever find out what you do abroad (unless some ass like Paulo, you, and I blog about it haha).

      For the record, Paulo does dress really well. Even the locals think he is hot haha.

      I enjoy these holes we dig ourselves in Caitlin. Someday we will meet and make each other real mad. Though I suppose anger is prime fuel for travelogue entries.

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  • Paulo Martins June 7, 2010, 4:36 pm

    Wade,
    i never thought you would do a blog post about me!
    Thanks a million bro!

    Caitlin,
    In my defense, even though I only carry 3 tees with me, I do dress nicely and I get complimented on my attire from girls and even gay dudes.

    I use one t-shirt and on the same night I’ll wash it. I never use a tee more than once. When they get too old or stained I’ll just buy a new one. They’re so cheap if you know where to look for them.

    In regards to armpit stains, my “secret” is as follows:
    1 – Less hair, less sweat! I try to keep the hairs as short as possible. I don’t shave it, I trim it down.
    2 – I don’t wear any normal spray/roll-on deodorant. I have a crystal stone that I bought about 4 years ago in Egypt (still good!). It’s odorless and together with short hair it keeps me clean.

    Ciao 4 now

    ~ Paulo ~

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  • Caitlin June 10, 2010, 8:45 pm

    Paulo:

    Ha ha ha… sorry Paulo if I accidentally implied that you are not presentable. Some people have the ability to look neat and good on the road with little effort, I will never be one of those people!

    Interesting about the crystal stone, I have never heard of that before.
    I am not a particularly sweaty girl but my t-shirt armpits still suffer the sad fate of stains. Maybe it’s tougher for girls, whose t-shirts are usually tighter against their skin? Who knows.

    Wade: Ah yes, you see what I mean: people who act (er, dress) a certain way (read: dirty) because backpacking somehow allows it. It’s a pet peeve. But I am a somewhat crotchety old woman sometimes.

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  • CoCoYoYo October 12, 2010, 8:37 pm

    Stumbled across this site while searching for inspiration re: minimalist packing. I’ve yet to reach vagabond or world traveler status but that’s the goal. What a wonderful site, Wade! looking forward to exploring it 🙂

    For me, I’d err on the side of caution and go with 3-per-clothing-item: 3 tops, 3 bottoms and 3 undies (oh, who am I kidding: I’d pack 10. I was in San Francisco for 55 hours and brought enough undies for a week LOL). I’d rather not do laundry every night AND have the option of a bit more variety when it comes to clothing.

    As much as I love backpacks I’ve found that I’m leaning towards the messenger-style tote bags when it comes to travel. For the most part my journeys are to see family and friends so I’m not often in a situation where I need to have my luggage with me most of the time. Even so I aim for ease and simplicity, which a messenger-style bag seems to offer. Not that I can’t do that with a backpack, of course but as this entry illustrates, a backpack (at least a large one) seems to scream TRAVELER.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 13, 2010, 11:12 am

      There is no regard in traveling without everything you feel you need or want — if you want something with you bring it. It is silly when people try to deprive themselves of things that they really want in an effort to travel light. Sometimes things are worth their weight, and it is up to each individual traveler to determine what these things are.

      Thanks for the comment, feel free to offer more feedback whenever you care to.

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  • Daniel July 21, 2011, 10:00 pm

    Well, being a backpacker myself I understand to a fair extent (in my opinion) about taking only what you need, which isn’t much. I must say that I would try my best to always have my own sleep gear. (wool blanket, sleeping bag, etc…) and most certainly a towel. If you’ve ever read or seen the movie “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” you would know why you ought to always have a towel. As well, If I won’t be using a plane to get to my destination, I am inseparable from my multi-tool. If I had to fly, I would most certainly bring additional funds to purchase a pocket knife or such while I’m there, and either mail it home or give it away before I return. As far as toiletries go, camp-suds can do just about anything. you can even brush your teeth with it. It won’t make you sick, but it doesn’t exactly taste pleasant. A small pot or metal cup is certainly a comfort should you be unable to find potable water. Well, there’s my rant……

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    • Wade Shepard July 23, 2011, 10:57 am

      Yes, it is good to find that glory point between being prepared and not having too much stuff. If you are traveling real slow, minimalistic travel packing is the way to go. If you are traveling fast though and passing through many different climates and engaging in new travel strategies then maybe Maximalist Travel Packing would be a cheaper option (so you don’t have to be continuously resupplying). I suppose there are two different perspectives when it comes to packing, but both lead to the same ends: having what you need, when you need it, but not being overly burdened.

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