What's in my Bag?

February 14, 2008

Being the middle of the month, I've just reached deadline for another article for that Chinese travel magazine, World Vision. I didn't bother to post the article I wrote last month to this travelogue. That one was a general overview of CouchSurfing: I think I've already talked enough about CouchSurfing in other posts to my site.

I adapted this month's article from an e-mail message I sent to my brother, Alan. Alan is in the middle of a six-month sabbatical, studying Spanish and traveling throughout South America. Before leaving, he asked me to send him a good packing list. I listed out everything I had in my bag at the time. I realized it might be interesting reading also for people who read about my travels regularly, both on-line and in print.

Think back to the last time you took an overnight trip away from home. What all did you pack into your bag?

Then, upon coming back home from that trip, did you open your bag to take things out which you had packed, but never used? Perhaps there might have been a book which you intended to read, yet never opened. Perhaps there were changes of clothing, shoes, or even snacks bought specifically for that journey--which never came out of the bag. If you're like me--and many other people I know--unpacking from a trip inevitably means thinking, "Why did I bring so much stuff? The next time I travel, I'll pack less..."

Now, imagine that you're preparing to leave China for a journey of several months. You're not planning to return for at least half-a-year, everything you need for over six months of daily life on the road will be inside that bag. What do you decide to bring for a trip like that? What can you decide to leave behind?

This is the exact situation I found myself in when setting off on my present journey. Last summer, I embarked on a trip I've long dreamt of making: traveling overland from China, continuing on as far west as possible without taking a plane. I knew that my route would cross certain countries of Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. However, when I left my Urumqi home, I wasn't sure what my destination would be: perhaps London or Portugal.

At this moment, I'm still traveling. Over this entire trip I have carried just one small backpack to contain all of my things. It's taken me years to work out a system of what to bring and what to leave behind on journeys, be they long or short. I'd like to offer my perspective on how to travel with a lighter load, presented through a glimpse into the bag which I have carried since beginning my trip in China, six months ago.

Before I present the contents of "What's in My Bag?", a disclaimer: though my trip has been long and has covered many countries, each traveler's list of necessities will vary. Different people make different journeys with different aims. My style of travel is largely to spend time in cities and areas of historical interest. I do enjoy getting out into beautiful natural settings every so often, but that's not how I spend most of my time. I therefore carry no special equipment: there are no hiking boots, tents, or sleeping bags in my backpack.

I've composed two lists: the first list covers the items I would take on any extended trip. The second is the "optional" list, covering items that might be nice to have, but don't have to be brought along. The main reason I've included them is because they are all items which happen to be in my bag presently.



All the items below are things I have at the moment in my backpack, but wouldn't consider essential:

I've just finished my overland journey from China. My ultimate destination wound up being neither London nor Portugal--not even Europe, if fact. I did skirt across several European countries, but have found my terminal overland point to be on yet another continent: I'm presently sipping sweet mint tea at a streetside cafe in Marrakesh, Morocco. I've made it from China to Africa by land, without taking a single flight.

From this long detailed list of everything I carry, it might sound like my the size of bag would be tremendous. However, it's no larger than the kind of bag in which students might carry books to school. Try using this packing list when preparing for your next trip, adding essential items and ignoring the things you won't need. Be it a visit of a few days to relatives across the country, or a journey of several years around the world, I'm certain you'll find yourself well-prepared.

One final piece of travel advice: you really need less than you think.