The Way of the Hermit Crab: 4 Rules for Better Backpack Living

Though we all begin life bare-ass naked and devoid of any possessions, none of us stay that way for long. The doctor swaddles us in a cozy new blanket, cooing relatives hand us stuffed animals and baby toys, while mommy and daddy shower us with gifts and buy us whole wardrobes of clothing.

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As we grow older, we accumulate more Stuff at an exponential rate. By the time we move out of our second womb (Mom and dad’s house) and into the real world, most of us have enough Stuff to fill up a small apartment (or at least a dorm room).

The desire to acquire more and more Stuff is hardwired into the human psyche. That’s why the average person lives a more or less stationary existence. Most people pick one spot on the map as the place to while away the bulk of their days. They buy homes, cars, and mountains of consumer goods in order to construct a comforting illusion of permanence and control.

Luggage Pile, England
Luggage Pile, England © geishaboy500

It’s entirely possible to live for months at a time out of twenty pounds (or less) of gear in a backpack.

The Traveler by necessity lives a very different sort of life. For him, possessions aren’t a safety blanket, but an anchor. You can only comfortably hike with so much weight, and checking heaps of bags at the airport is a waste of time and money. Most of the things we think we need are actually dead weight; it’s entirely possible to live for months at a time out of twenty pounds (or less) of gear in a backpack.

I’ve learned a few tricks for living well while traveling light, and every trip I take teaches me new ways to improve on my set-up. Consider this article my way of paying it forward to less experienced travelers. If you follow these four rules, you can keep the amount of bullshit you lug around to a minimum, without sacrificing any essential comforts. But if you can afford the comfort of luxury travel and boutique hotels, then these rules don't really apply to you.

#1: Find Out What ‘Essential’ Really Means

It doesn’t take much to keep a person going. If you’re staying in hostels or hotels every night, you could conceivably get by with a couple changes of clothes stuffed in a rucksack and nothing more. Of course, a backpack full of clothing isn’t going to be nearly enough for most travelers. Even the lightest packer will want to bring along a few books to manage his boredom and a camera to record his adventures.

Your first step before packing for any trip should be to write out a list of your ‘essentials’. Find out what things you absolutely need on hand in order to be comfortable on your journey. If life without it won’t make you miserable, then don’t bring it. Try to keep your list of essentials to no more than five or six things.

For example, my essentials are:

  • 2 changes of clothing
  • contact solution/spare contacts
  • my laptop and netbook (I work while I travel)
  • a book for pre-flight reading
  • camera

If I have all of that and nothing more, I can enjoy myself indefinitely overseas.

#2: If You Can Find It There, Buy It There

This obviously doesn’t apply to expensive items like laptops and cameras. I’m directing this one at the obsessive-compulsive packer, who has to bring something for every conceivable situation. Sure, if you haul that bag of beach gear with you on your trip to Galway you might end up using it, but it’s more likely you’ve just added ten pounds to your pack for no good reason.

Many novice travelers try to prepare for every possible situation and wind up loaded down with pounds of unnecessary crap. Do you really need six towels? Or even two? What are the odds you’ll need back-up shoes? If your regular pair gets soaked, pick up some cheap loafers from a local store.

The same goes for things like spare batteries, extra changes of clothing, blankets, pillows and the like. If you really end up needing them, you’ll be able to find them easily in any reasonably developed country. Depending on where you travel to, you might even save money by buying it there.

Eternal Wanderer
Eternal Wanderer © mamnaimie

#3: A Good Carry-on Bag Is Priceless

My laptop bag is fantastic. It’s got easy-access pockets for currency, cameras, phones, and water bottles, plus a spacious inner cavity that’s got enough room for my laptop, netbook, and odds and ends like a worldwide power converter. Everything important goes in my carry on bag, while my checked backpack only holds clothes. That way if the airline loses my baggage, I still have everything I need with me.

If you want to travel on the ultra-cheap, you might even look into packing everything you need in your carry-on bag. Ryanair offers incredibly low-cost flights to everywhere in Europe, as long as you don’t carry more than one piece of baggage. They’ve got very strict restrictions on how large that bag can be, and a weight limit of 10 kg.

Go on, test yourself. See if you can fit everything you need inside of a laptop bag or travel satchel and have it weigh in at less than 10 kg. If you can manage that, a whole new world of bargain bin exotic trips await you.

Man on train next to iPod charger

#4: Consolidate Your Entertainment by Going Digital

Are you a voracious reader? Does any long air trip for you necessitate a stack of books that outweighs the rest of your gear put together? If so, you need to look into picking up an e-Reader. An e-Reader is a tablet computer designed to be loaded up with hundreds of electronic copies of books. and Barnes and Noble both have e-Readers (the Kindle and the nook, respectively) and both have online stores filled with hundreds of thousands of e-book titles.

An average e-Reader will weigh a pound or two at most. That’s far, far, far less than the weight of several dozen paperback novels. You don’t have to use an e-Reader though. All e-books can also be read and displayed on laptops or netbooks. However you do it, converting the bulk of your reading material into an electronic form will save you a vast amount of space and weight.

The same is true for movies. Don’t bring a portable DVD player, or a bulky laptop and a big stack of DVDs. Buy your movies off iTunes or copy them from a DVD to your computer’s hard drive. You’ll be able to bring a lot more entertainment with you for no additional weight.

On the subject of laptops … avoid massive, seven pound machines with 17″ screens and virtually no battery life. Netbooks and CULV notebooks both offer 6-7 hours of battery life (some have much more) and usually weigh under five pounds. Most don’t have an optical drive, but if you’ve ripped your DVDs to your hard drive that won’t be a problem.

Obviously, these four rules don’t represent the final word on traveling light. The best way to learn how to live a portable life is to do it. Pack a bag or two and spend a few weeks living in a foreign country. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t, alter your list of essentials based on your own travel experiences. Living out of a backpack is an art, and as with all art the only way to get better at it is to practice.

Failures are how we improve. If you forget something crucial and have a miserable trip, you’ll be that much more likely to remember that thing next time around. In the end, the best way to learn how to be a world traveler is to do it. Get out there, have an adventure, and devise a few tricks of your own for living well without living large.

And don’t forget to post your hard-won lessons in the comments section below!

  1. An interesting article, and especially so to me as I have been backpacking for about 9 months now and have learnt alot of these lessons the hard way. But, a lesson learnt the hard way is alot less likely to be forgotten than advice too easily obtained through others.

    #1 – Completely agree. Smaller bags = less headaches for airlines (and sometimes cheaper flights where checked baggage is an additional fee), less security hassles (only one bag to watch) and you also look more like a daytripper than a prospect to touts as they swarm around people carrying 70+ litre bags trying to find a place to stay for the night. I would, however, suggest that a toothbrush, toothpaste and toilet paper would be handy additions here – some countries do not have as widespread a culture of toothbrushing as others, same thing with toilet tickets…

    #2 – Agreed as well. I have met so many people who have spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on the latest and greatest GoreTex, North Face, expedition-grade stuff from home only to have it fail after about the same amount (or less) use than a locally made and sold alternative. Plus, buying stuff locally means you are pumping money into their economy and giving people work – always nice “fuzzy-feeling” side-effects for a retail experience.

    #3 – Again, completely agree. I have one bag which carries all my “essentials”: passport, camera, laptop, cash, ID, etc. which always rides with me, whether on a plane, train, bus or horsecart. What is really great, though, is when you can use the one, carry-on-able bag for everything and satisfy #1 & #3 in one go!

    #4 – Agree to a point, although, as with all things entertainment-wise, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I tend to buy books as I go, sometimes from 1st-hand shops, more often from book exchanges or 2nd-hand shops. I buy them, read them, then either trade them in a store, with another traveller, leave them in a guesthouse for someone else to pick up, or (if I really like them) mail it home. A paper book is my preferred option for reading (blackout-proof and more tactile than electronic), but I do see your point about people carrying a library around with them. Again, I have seen people with Lonely Planets for every country they are planning to see in the next 6 months in their bag. Whilst I use LP, I buy them one country at a time. Kind of stops you from skipping to the end and finding out the butler did it.

    Also, I buy DVDs as I go. Sure they are not always the greatest quality, but, again, some I rip onto my laptop, some I transfer to my iPod if I really like them. And then, again, like the books, I will sometimes leave the original at a guesthouse, mail them home, or pass them onto someone else when I am done with them.

    Another thing with electronics is, if possible, try and use similar chargers for all. I currently carry a mains-to-USB adaptor which I can use to charge my iPod or my mobile phone (using a USB charging cable I bought at 7-Eleven in Thailand for US$3 or so). One plug for many items is a massive weight and bulk saving idea.

    Using these tricks I have successfully (and relatively comfortably) been able to live out of a Crumpler Seedy Three Messenger Bag for two months, with three changes of clothes, boardies, thongs, toiletries, camera, laptop and iPod. It actually makes me almost feel like mailing my main backpack home and carrying on with just that bag. Kind of like David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu.

  2. Great points! I’m an indefinite traveler with a medium-sized entourage of gear, hoping to downsize to carry-on only status the next time I board a plane (and forever more). I do, however, plan to carry a few more items than you list above! :-)

  3. Good advice here. Living by the Buddhist tenet that possessions are delusions can make for a carefree adventure. A simple trip is a happy trip. But still, wow, only two changes of clothes? You must wash your shirts a lot!

    And yes, definitely the modern age has made it easy to travel w/ techie-tainment. Thank goodness for massive hard-drives e-readers.

    Thanks for posting.

  4. Definitely a great list for someone who is about to head off to a foreign country for two months. And I am a huge fan of Travel the Road, and in one episode the two men give away everything but what they are wearing and the media equipment. For one family, they even run to the market and stock up a backpack with food before giving it to them. They then went on with basically nothing until they left the area (Although I am not sure of the amount of time spent without anything, I still find this very commendable).

  5. I thought this article would be about real back packing, how can you use a laptop when your out in the middle of a jungle or forest. your more of a hotel guy. you dont even bring a tent, this is more of a guide on how to travel from building to building. No bow or fishing rod? you guys must have electical outlets and eat pre packed food?. Not my cup of brew im into real hiking and outdoor traveling without civilization or electricity. my essentials are Zippo Lighter/ spare flints/ Bow/ Hunting knife/ gutting knife/ Tent/ Wet clothes/ Dry clothes/ Sharpening stone/ File/ Scissors/ water skin/ Bag of peppercorns and assorted spices/ first aid kit.

  6. Merino wool clothing items are a great way to stretch the few clothes you bring a little longer between washes. A little pricier, but fantastically comfy, super odor-resistant and great for moisture and temperature management (warm even when wet). Not quite as cool as thin cotton in extra hot climates, though.

    I have to admit I tend to blend backountry backpacking with travel backpacking, so the comments about folks bringing “expedition gear” seems a little narrow-minded to me. Spending nights near freezing up in the paramo of Colombia I was very grateful for my good sleeping bag and waterproof bivy. I suppose I could have bought a stack of horse blankets or something, but that would have made the hike up the mountains a lot less fun. Depends on your goals nad the type of experience you’re going for.

  7. With what you said about trying to potentially carry only a carry-on bag, I would love to do that, but the big problem I see with that is some things might not make it through security. Specifically, I’m thinking about my Swiss Army knife. They’re so incredibly useful, but I wouldn’t be able to take it onto a plane. I guess I could leave it, but I’ve used it so often that I don’t want to (corkscrew for wine, knife for any number of things you need to cut obviously, the mini-scissors are AMAZING for anything dealing with thread and make a good mustache trimmer as well, toothpick, tweezers, etc., etc.).

    I tend to be a sort of traditionalist with my backpacking entertainment, and all I take are a couple books. I wouldn’t want to go digital because one of my favorite things while traveling is switching out books in hostels. You can read stuff you’ve never heard of, find little notes, lots of little things. If I had an eReader I couldn’t do that.

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