Lightening the Load

 | February 18, 2008 4:24 pm

Suitcase for down underWhen I spent a month backpacking in Italy two years ago I was quite pleased with how I’d packed. I fit everything in one of my brother’s spare backpacks and a shoulder bag that served as my carry on. About half way through I realized I still was carrying stuff I didn’t really need. So for this last month in Australia and New Zealand I was determined to really take some more care with packing. I packed up another of my brother’s spare backpacks , (the one the smelled least like campfire smoke).

I looked at the items for how easily they could be washed and dry overnight, how they might layer for warmth, (barely needed for most of the trip), and where ever possible their dual uses. My pajama pants, (plain black with a tie), work as dressy pants and with long underwear is very warm. (The long underwear was only needed once, they spent most of the trip buried at the bottom of the bag). My shawl, (bought in Sorrento, Italy), also makes a great towel, tablecloth or skirt.

I kept all this in mind while packing, but still I was surprised when it only filled up half the backpack. I was more than happy to downsize to a small suitcase and extremely happy to be able to fit my hiking boots in the suitcase so I didn’t need to wear them on the plane. (Hiking boots a necessary for the hiking we did in New Zealand. Usually I’m happier hiking in tennis shoes, but this was too muddy and rough.)

After some debate I packed a trimmed down version of my bag of recording equipment, (sans the handy but bulky bag itself), and I’m very glad I did that since I had a chance to record some stuff I’m working on now.

All that being said, there are a couple things that could have been been better. My lightweight jacket does nothing for the rain. I brought along two hats for some reason, and of course, only used one.

Then amazed by all the extra room in the suitcase I threw in some extra colors of tatting thread. They don’t take up much room, but they’re more than I could ever possibly expect to use in the one month we were gone. Way, way more. But I thought to myself, “eh, I’ve got the space. They’re light. Why not throw them in and have the extra choices.

And there’s the rub. I ended up in Australia with more thread than I needed and choices to make that didn’t actually matter. It’s nice to have choices, but if all the options are equally good, (or equally inconsequential), then sometimes it’s nice to have to make no choice at all. At one point when we were rained in at our hotel in Cairns I sat there with four different projects in front of me trying to decide which one I felt like working on. In was quite possibly the stupidest five minutes of the whole month.

If I’d made the choice before I’d come I would have been more than happy to have picked up whatever I’d brought, sat myself down next to a window and tatted away while watching the lightening storm. If your options are all equally good, bad, unknown or inconsequential the only bad choice you can make is to waste your time deciding between them.

That’s one of the things I like about traveling. I’m forced to pare it down to the basics. What do I really need, and what do I really want in my van, in my suitcase, in my life? And how do I get rid of the rest of the stuff?

Rick Steve’s advice for packing is to lay out on the bed everything you think you need then pack half as much stuff and twice as much money. I’m certainly not there as far as the money goes, but I’m working on it as far as the stuff goes. It’s fun to see what I can get rid of.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing without. Just figuring if something is worth taking along with you “just in case” or if it’s easier to wait and figure out a way to get a hold of it when you actually need/want it.

Food, would be an extreme example. Sure, I could pack up two months worth of food, but why brother, when that’s something that’s easy to get a hold of on the road and something that it’s more interesting to find on a day to day basis. In my van I have a cooler, a camping stove, and a (currently broken and soon to be replaced) Smart mug. That has been enough for now. If I start wanting to do more cooking I’ll find some way to manage it. Maybe a solar oven. That would be cool. But the desire for one has not yet surpassed the hassle of getting one, carrying it around or using it.

I’ve never actually owned a TV, but that doesn’t mean I don’t watch TV. I used to watch it a lot at work when I spent 25 hours in a studio with only 3 hours of actual work to do, (the rest of the time I was just there in case something went wrong). Mom and I watch The Closer, and House and other shows when I’m visiting, and I have a number of shows and a couple movies on my media player that I can watch on the road. But I’m more of a radio junkie than couch potato anyway, so not having a TV is easy when I have my mp3 player and podcasts of all my favorite radio shows.

It’s a balance between the desire to have something against the cost (time, money, or space in the van) of having it. If it doesn’t make sense to having something in the van (or in life) you can find a way to bring down the cost and then get it, or you can find a way to bring down the desire and not get it. Like replacing the tv with podcasts, books, and, oh yeah, the ability to travel around with no attachments for a year. With so many choices it’s nice to have one less option.

I did my best to resist the desire to start to create mathematical formulas for these ideas. Can you tell my dad is an economist?

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4 Responses to “Lightening the Load”

Molly wrote a comment on February 19, 2008

Each winter break during college I tried to pack lighter. My senior year I had actually packed only one carry-on. Then I thought “what if I want to wear X? or Y? or Z?” and suddenly I was back to the huge pack. I wore basically the same three things all of break. Now when I travel (like never! I’m always working on my blasted dissertation!!) I try to pack light.

I should really take another pass at my crap and weed stuff out again…

Jessica wrote a comment on February 20, 2008

“What if I want to wear X? or Y? or Z?”

That’s exactly where you get yourself into trouble with packing! What helps me is to replace of “What if I want to wear X?” with “If “Q” happens, do I have something to wear?” Then question yourself about the likelihood of “Q” happening.* Keeping in mind how long you’re going to be gone helps too. There was no reason for me to bring more thread than I could possibly use for the month. When I spent that month in Italy I had three colors, of small thread, all which fit in the palm of my hand and it was perfect. (Tatting, or some other portable craft, I think is essential travel gear. Not only does it help to pass the time, but people always what to know what you’re doing.)

Insert bad Star Trek joke, “Q happens.”

Andrew wrote a comment on February 20, 2008

I live in Flagstaff and am seriously considering getting rid of my apartment and living out of my S.U.V. – stealthy urban vehicle ;)

Can you post some tips on urban camping/ stealth parking? My biggest concerns are how to modify the windows so people can’t see in and also fogging of the windows because of how cold it gets here. Any tips?

Anyway…love the blog and looking forward to more!

Jessica wrote a comment on February 20, 2008

Andrew – Absolutely. I just bought some fabric two nights ago to turn into curtains. I’ll be posting about that (with pictures) in a day or two once I’ve got something that works.

I haven’t got any ideas for the fogging of the windows though. When I’m in cold weather I’m generally just passing through and so I’m not as worried. But since you live there you’re right to want to be more stealthy.

You might try asking the Yahoo VanDweller’s group. That’s the sort of thing you can get a dozen different answers about. There’s also some members there who have some elaborate and effective heating methods, that I haven’t really started thinking about.

With the university in Flagstaff there’s a lot of creative dwelling arrangements. If you’re not trying to go super cheap you might be able to rent drive way space. Then you don’t have to be super stealthy.

But if you’re like me you’d rather try to figure out ways to be able to stay anywhere anytime.

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