Photo: Olga Danylenko/Shutterstock

Packing and The Mantra of Minimalism

by Molly McCahan Nov 15, 2008
Just how much gear can you fit into a Kelty Redwing backpack? Molly McCahan shows you.

My husband David and I are on a mad quest to simplify our lives after traveling around the world for 14 months. On that amazing adventure, we survived with the bare minimum crammed into packs on our backs.

A nomadic lifestyle brings its own set of challenges, but it’s incredibly cathartic as well.

I recently taught a seminar at several Northern California REI stores entitled, “Tips for Extended World Travel.” Among other things, packing and gear graced my agenda.

The audience audibly gasped when I displayed the Kelty Redwing 3,100 backpacks we used for our year-plus journey – the same packs we carried for our 2005 three-month jaunt through Southeast Asia.

On its website, REI says the Redwing “is a natural for day hiking, commuting or school“, which makes our feat even more commendable.

All the stuff you think you need while traveling shouldn’t be the focus when you’re seeing the world. That said, you have to be smart about what you bring along.

Packing is always a bear; I don’t think anyone enjoys the task. After a few trial attempts with our gear spread across the bed, David and I found our dilemma comical.

Price: $89.99 | Kelty Redwing 3100

It was the ultimate lesson in non-attachment, much to my Buddhist delight. We simply had to leave some things behind.

Because we planned to spend most of our time in warm, humid climates, we packed accordingly. Rain pants and my favorite North Face vest didn’t make the cut.

Our heaviest layers were lightweight fleece pullovers and stuffable waterproof jackets.

When we did encounter colder weather – think Annapurna Base Camp in mid-November – we bought beautiful hand-knit sweaters in Kathmandu for the trek, and toughed out the rest of the chill by layering.

Coupled with multiple mugs of hot masala chai every evening, it worked.

I still chuckle when I review our final list.

My pack was a shrine to the nylon and polyester gods. In those seemingly small 3,100 cubic inches, I crammed a ton of stuff:

  • Tevas
  • Vasque Gore-Tex light hikers
  • Flip flops
  • Five pairs of socks
  • Two pairs of pants
  • One pair of shorts
  • Six short-sleeve t-shirts
  • Three long-sleeve t-shirts
  • Three blouses
  • One lightweight fleece
  • One nylon pullover
  • One tank top
  • Two bras
  • Nine pairs of underwear
  • Long underwear
  • One bikini
  • One sports bra
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Plastic poncho
  • Sun hat
  • Bandana
  • Extra shoelaces
  • Money belt
  • Fanny pack
  • Silk sleeping bag liner
  • Alarm clock
  • Flashlight
  • Cards
  • Toiletries
  • Earplugs
  • Sewing kit
  • Woolite
  • Incense
  • Travel candle

Oh, and the three scarves and headband I bought in India and Nepal.

Not to mention that at times, we felt like a walking drugstore. Despite a preference for natural remedies, we didn’t mess around on a trip of this scale. One-fourth of our packs held every pharmaceutical goodie we’d possibly require on the road:

  • Anti-diarrheals
  • Pepto Bismol
  • Ibuprofen
  • Cold/flu capsules
  • Cough drops
  • Digital thermometer
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Allergy pills
  • Nasal inhaler
  • Dramamine
  • Vaseline
  • Eye drops
  • Wet wipes
  • Antibacterial hand gel
  • Gold Bond powder
  • Travel-size toilet paper
  • Band-Aids
  • Pocket tissues
  • Tampons
  • Q-tips
  • Sun block
  • Deet
  • Multivitamins
  • Acidophilus
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc lozenges
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Emergen-C
  • Grapefruit seed extract
  • Arnica gel
  • Tiger Balm

Documents, journals, camera, binoculars, iPod, and anything else I failed to mention went into smaller carry-on backpacks.

A journey like ours changes you, and minimalism is my new mantra. Currently back in the States, I’m overwhelmed and annoyed by the consumerism and waste I witness on a daily basis. In light of global warming, my quest for downsizing becomes even more urgent.

Living with everything you own on your back has a certain charm to it…as long as I can ditch that pack each night.

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