Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

A (very incomplete) history of no-baggage travel

August 12, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Around the world with no luggage — has this kind of thing ever been done before?

I suspect that it has been: At some point in history, no doubt, some anonymous sailor or vagabond made his way around the world with nothing but the clothes on his back.  In fact, I’m sure that shorter no-luggage journeys have been common over the years — from the hunters of pre-history, to the religious pilgrims of the Middle Ages, to the political refugees of today.

But what about recreational travelers and vagabonders?  I’m no travel scholar (and if you are a travel scholar, I’d love to hear your perspective), but most the most memorable baggage-related anecdotes I’ve found in my research involve a compulsion to bring home on the road.  Naturally, this results in an excess of luggage for the travelers involved.  In Pagan Holiday, travel writer Tony Perrottet notes how the social elite of ancient Rome traveled in “their own cocoons of luxury on the road”:

The richest aristocrats would ship their private wagons across the Adriatic, then travel through Greece in a slow, sumptuous convoy that included a retinue of chefs, secretaries, and slaves, who would race ahead of their masters in order to set up silk-curtained tents as dining halls and bedrooms en route.  These lucky Romans were able to re-create all the luxuries of their villas in the middle of the Greek countryside, even laying out marble floor mosaics beneath their feet.  They would dine on plates of beaten gold, drink their vintage wine from crystal goblets, and be surrounded by their favorite works of art, which had to be packed and unpacked every day.  Some nobles invested in carrucae dormitoriae — sleeping carriages strewn with goose-down pillows — thus eliminating the need for overnight stops.  Others had their coaches equipped with dice tables, or revolving seats in the rear to better appreciate the views en route.

At that point in history, traveling without luggage (a lower-class fate, no doubt) was probably so common as to escape mention.  This probably began to change by the time of the early 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution created a middle-class travel demographic that tended to ape the overblown packing habits of its upper class forbears.  By the middle of the 20th century, travel writer Temple Fielding — who was actually advising people on how to travel in Europe — bragged to the New Yorker that he carried thirty-five Swiss linen handkerchiefs, three pairs of silk pajamas, two toilet kits, and a Philips three-speed record-player (among other items) on his guidebook research trips.  If anyone of that era was making journeys in Europe (or beyond) with no luggage at all, the New Yorker wasn’t writing about them.

Based on internet research, there are a few 21st century travelers carrying out experiments in no-luggage travel.  The Temple Fielding of no-luggage travel would appear to be Eric Le Fou — a.k.a. “The Human Swiss Army Knife” — an eccentric Frenchman who landed in the 2003 Guinness Book of World Records for wearing a jacket that contained a supposed 1300 items, including surgical gloves, inflatable pillows, epoxy metallic paste, a butane soldering iron, three condoms, and a “home made powerful alarm device.”

On a much saner, less obsessive level, the most impressive 21st-century no-baggage wanderer I’ve found thus far is Jonathan Yevin, whom I’ve profiled elsewhere on this site.  Jonathan’s 2006 Budget Travel article about his Latin American no-luggage travel experience inspired fellow American Devin Skalski to travel baggage-free in Asia.  Elsewhere, Anders Ansar of Sweden has taken several no-luggage trips using a custom-designed vest, and he has written a detailed summary of his experiment on his website.

If anyone is aware of other no-luggage travelers out there (or specific historical examples of past no-luggage journeys), please let me know about them!

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