‘UNPACKED’ is Traveler Tech’s new, open-ended series of thoughts about our travels and the items which we carry with us. Hopefully, these features will blend the practical with the philosophical–while also fitting completely under the seat in front of you. Welcome aboard!
My first instinct was that I didn’t want to assemble another collection of packing tips: I have already read an interminable number of “You can stuff items into the empty spaces of your shoes!” articles and, I expect, so have you.
Instead, I thought we’d all be better served by diving a little deeper. I want to explore concepts which might help you discover your own better ways of filling up a bag. Frankly, I hate when people proclaim that there’s a “right way” to travel. Let’s try to be more honest and humble than that. We should acknowledge that no two people travel in exactly the same way and, in fact, no two trips are the same.
Or, to paraphrase the Ancient Greeks – “No person ever packs the same bag twice”.
Let’s start things off with a look at “baggage”, both literal and emotional.
The way I used to pack for a trip was thoughtless, a sort of attempt at salving the insecurity of not having something that I needed while on the road. Here’s what I’d do: I’d pull out my largest suitcase and stuff it to the gills with at least twice as much clothing as I actually needed. I’d then pull out my largest messenger bag and load it full of computers, adapters, books, gadgets, and magazines.
At the time, it just didn’t occur to me that I could often find what I needed at my destination. I hadn’t yet learned to trust in the idea that human beings share most all of the same needs and that, yes, I could find an extra shirt on the road if I really needed one. Or perhaps an even more potent concept–that deliberately leaving empty space in my bag and buying a few things on the road might give me enduring artifacts of my travels, keepsakes that revive memories of places I’ve been after I return home.
Facing My Fears in 83 Days
My current “go to” bag was purchased for my honeymoon. It was a three month, around-the-world trip which came with one additional wrinkle–my wife’s challenge that we bring only one bag each. Clearly, I had no personal experience with minimal packing, so I had to research how other people did it.
On almost every “Best Bags for ‘One Bag’ Travelers” list, I saw Tom Bihn’s Aeronaut mentioned. I decided to buy one and, according to my TripIt account, I’ve put almost 400,000 miles on it in the four-and-a-half years since then. That’s a stunning statistic for me to reflect on: It’s equivalent to sixteen trips around the world or, put another way, enough for this American to finally learn that I should really be stating distances using the metric system (643,738 km).
Though the shoulder strap stitching is falling apart from years of bouncing around, my Aeronaut is still in great shape (see photo above taken a couple of months ago). It’s traveled on planes, big and small. It has ridden next to me on ultra-modern Japanese shinkansen bullet trains–as well as a charming antique railway known as “The New York City Subway System”. It’s been on buses in Korea, in vans in Vietnam, and in the trunk of cars cruising across deserts in Jordan and West Texas.
My Aeronaut was briefly held hostage in back of a Tunisian taxicab. It’s been stuffed between the seats of a French Polynesian ferry and, in a ride that lasted far longer than I was comfortable with, jammed into the nose compartment of a small Caribbean fishing boat, skittering towards a tiny island off the coast of Panama. It’s been over my shoulder as I’ve walked into 5-Star Hotels and 5-Dollar Hostels alike, not looking out-of-place in either.
Me and my bag–we’ve got some history together.
Other than the cost of the trips themselves, it’s been the best travel-related purchase I’ve ever made. Why? It’s not only the quality of the bag or the use I’ve gotten out of it, but the practice of “travel mindfulness” that buying it started for me. I usually bring more than one bag with me these days but I think that the experience of roaming this big, beautiful Earth on that honeymoon trip fundamentally changed my relationship to my possessions.
The things that we choose to take with us and how we decide to bring them can have an impact upon where we go–and how we feel for having gone there. Going on a journey can also be a process of stripping things down, a consideration of what is essential to you. It can be a decision to meet life’s unexpected moments by making do with what you have–or by trusting that you’ll find what you need along the way.
Travel is the art of bringing ourselves into new, unfamiliar places and, in my experience, this is both a literal and an emotional truth.
In our next installment, we’ll look at another simple idea which has changed how I think about packing my bags.