No-baggage field report: Full circle (week 6)
October 5, 2010 by Rolf Potts
The no-baggage journey is complete! After six weeks and more than 30,000 miles on five continents, I’ve come full-circle to New York — and be honest, it feels kind of surreal. I didn’t pack many items for the journey, but I did manage to pack in a lot of experiences — so many that I feel like I’ve been gone a lot more than a month and a half. I feel both happy and tired (and I’d reckon my exhaustion has less to do with my lack of luggage than the fact that the world is a big place to cover in such a short time).
The final week of the journey went by quickly: After indulging in all manner of thrill sports in New Zealand, I flew across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles — and from there had just a few days to cross the North American continent. This leg of the journey ended up being pretty utilitarian: Justin and I hunkered down at the Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas and edited videos for a couple days before flying on to New York.
Before I started this trip I wondered how light I could pack, and I wondered which items might be essential to the enjoyment of other countries. As it turned out, I didn’t require much — the less I took, the less I had to worry about, and the less slowed me down. As my videos and posts from recent weeks attest, I managed to have a lot of great experiences over the course of my journey, and I rarely found myself wishing I’d brought more things. All too often, I think, we pack a bunch of “just in case” items when packing for a journey (be it around the world or to the corner grocery store), and most all of these “just in case” items are either available on the road, or not necessary in the first place. We also tend to pack unnecessary things because certain items feed into our psychic “bubble of comfort” — a kind of half-hearted attempt to bring home with us — when in fact not much is required, in the material sense, to enjoy a great time on the road.
Once I got into a travel rhythm, the no-baggage aspect of the trip was pretty simple. Two-a-day showers kept me as clean as I’ve ever been on the road, and daily clothes-washings (of my socks, underwear, and t-shirt) kept my wardrobe fresh and odor free. In fact, one of the reasons I started doing these weekly field reports is to have a pretext to comment on the no-baggage aspect of the trip — since it became apparent quite early that not having luggage wasn’t going to add a lot of drama or complication to my day-to-day activities (which meant, happily, that I could focus my journey on the joys of travel instead of the idiosyncrasies of packing light).
So does this mean I’ll spend the rest of my life traveling without bags? Probably not — bags do serve a purpose, they make some aspects of a journey easier, and one can still travel ultra-light while carrying a small bag. Moreover, the No Baggage Challenge was an experiment in traveling light — not an edict that luggage-free travel is a universally superior way to go. That said, I’ll probably continue to experiment with no-luggage travel — if nothing else because it’s fun and liberating and not all that hard to do. I encourage everyone who’s been following this journey to try their own personal no-luggage and/or ultra-light travel field tests.
In field report #4 (as well as in the video above) I boiled down my no-baggage travel-kit to what I felt were the bare-essential non-clothing items: toothbrush/toothpaste, small bottle of liquid soap, small tube of sunscreen, iPod or iPhone (and charger), deodorant, sunglasses, ball-cap, passport, cash/credit card, and emergency cash. (I also packed glasses and contact solution — though not everyone shares my mediocre eyesight; in total I carried less than 4 pounds of gear, including spare clothing.) Since I’ve already touched on gear in previous reports, I’ll take a look now how my travel clothing performed.
It’s no accident that I approached ScotteVest as a clothing sponsor when I first dreamed up this journey: SeV makes good-looking, quick-drying, high-performance travel gear that features lots of ingeniously designed pockets; I can think of no clothing line better suited to the rigors of a no-baggage journey. Since ScotteVest was basically agreeing to have me test their gear in intensive, public, real-time travel situations for six weeks straight — to effectively pummel their clothing through safaris and airport screenings and Kiwi canyon-dives, often on video, for 42 consecutive days — their investment bore no small element of risk. Happily for both ScotteVest and me, my SeV wardrobe performed brilliantly. Here’s my take on each item from my wardrobe (including a few non-SeV items):
ScotteVest Tropical Vest/Jacket: This was the key item in my round-the-world wardrobe — it’s essentially why my no-baggage aspect of my journey ended up being so painless — and it ranks among the most useful items of travel clothing I’ve ever owned. I almost didn’t pack this (I was strongly favoring the standard Travel Vest), but SeV CEO Scott Jordan talked me into bringing this at the last moment. I’m glad he did, since the zip-on/off sleeves made it versatile from climate to climate, and the vented, lightweight design performed well in hot weather. The truest asset of this jacket/vest, of course, was the pocket design: I was able to bring my entire no-baggage trip-gear in its 18 (mainly interior) pockets, without looking overloaded (watch the videos for proof of this) or feeling lumpy or lopsided. The no-baggage journey might have been possible without this jacket, but it certainly wouldn’t have been as easy.
ScotteVest Performance Tees and Q-Zip pullover: I was a fan of the Q-Zip before the trip began, for essentially vain reasons (I like the way they look) — but consistently warm weather on my itinerary meant that the Performance Tees bore the brunt of my journey. I rotated a black one and an olive one, wearing one or the other every day of the trip. Early on I expressed concern that the polyester fabric might not resist odor over the long haul (this was based on a good-looking but poor-performing polyester Starter shirt I once owned) — but this fear never bore out. Daily washings, combined with quality SeV design, kept the shirts largely odor-free for the duration of the trip (and, while many readers have recommended merino wool as an odor-resistant alternative to poly, I’d still recommend daily washings, be it poly or wool, in the simple interest of not being gross). Odor-performance is, in fact, a big reason I went nightclubbing in Thailand, four weeks into the journey: I don’t typically seek out nightclubs (I’m more of a dive-bar guy), but I was so tired of people assuming that “no-bags = unbearable stench” that I wanted to prove my clothing’s performance in a very tangible and objective way. And, if you watch the Bangkok video, you’ll see that my SeV ensemble passed both the smell and the fashion test at one of the city’s most exclusive nightclubs. Did I miss the feel of cotton t-shirts from time to time? You bet I did — but the “performance” aspect of the Performance Tees (quick-dry, durable, wrinkle-resistant fabric) made it a worthwhile trade-off.
Scottevest Ultimate Cargo Pants; SeV boxer shorts; Blundstone boots; SmartWool socks: I like to think of these four items as the “workhorse” components of my wardrobe, since the surest sign of their effectiveness is that I rarely had to think about them. The socks were comfortable, fast drying, and odor-resistant, as were the boxers (and I’ve noted in previous field reports that the boxers doubled as running shorts and a swimming suit during the journey). I love my Blundstone boots — and anyone who’s looked down at my feet since late 2006 knows that I wear them rather obsessively. Finally, the cargo pants proved their utility, day in and day out, for the duration of the trip — especially after I coupled them with a belt in Egypt. [The cargo pants were actually the victim of one slight wardrobe malfunction on the journey, when the pants’ cinch-string broke in Egypt. Several readers have since pointed out that cinch-string in question was never designed to keep my pants up — it was meant to fine-tune the belt-fit of the pants. In this way, bearing the weight of my pants with the cinch-string was kind of like using my truck’s parking brake whenever I needed to slow down in traffic: It worked, for the most part, but that’s certainly not what it was designed for, and there were better ways to implement the tool in question. Sorry for my confusion on that — and thanks for the clarification, everyone!] In addition to having quick-drying linen-cotton fabric and deep, well-designed pockets (in 42 days of constant use I never lost anything from the cargo pockets, even while canyon-swinging in New Zealand), these pants also passed the velvet-rope fashion-test at Bangkok’s Bed nightclub (note how the club’s general manager compliments their looks in the video). If you’re looking for the Ultimate Cargo Pant in the SeV pants/shorts catalog, be advised that they have been discontinued in favor of an updated cargo-pant model, which will debut in coming months.
Elsewhere, I have lots of new reader questions to address in this field report — and the first one comes from SeV CEO Scott Jordan:
From your experience in the No Baggage Challenge, what other styles of clothing should SeV develop that would help the traveler?
To be honest, I’m the kind of person who values simplicity and sticks with a system that is already working. This in mind, I’d reckon it’s hard to beat the SeV Tropical Jacket/Vest as the central, most essential item for a no-baggage round-the-world trip. That said, my travel-style is very much unique to my own sensibilities, and another person’s no-baggage or ultra-light travel strategy will also hinge on their own circumstances. Female travelers, business travelers, and cold-weather travelers — to name a few obvious examples — will have significantly different needs than the ones I encountered on my own No Baggage Challenge. This, in mind, I’d love it if everyone would give Scott J suggestions of their own. What kind of clothing items might enhance your own ultra-light travel endeavors? Pocket-intensive sports coats and button-down shirts? Your own fine-tuned pocket-scheme to address female travel-needs? Fabrics and design-features that enable extreme-weather travel? Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments below (just be sure to check out the full ScotteVest catalog first, since SeV already designs clothing for a wide variety of situations).
Any advice for people at home who love the concept of the No Baggage Challenge and want to incorporate some lessons into their own travel, either without checked baggage or with less baggage?
My simplest answer to this is “just try it.” I spent a lot of pre-trip time worrying about the ins and outs of no-baggage travel, but once I got on the road I was amazed by how simple it was. Everybody has their own system, of course, so I encourage you to discipline your own packing system in such a way that you lighten your load for the better. Seriously, just suck it up and give it a try — it’s easier than you might think, and even mistakes and bad experiences can teach you useful lessons.
Did washing the same clothes every night ever become excessively tiresome?
Washing clothes every day was no more tiresome than washing myself every day. In short, if you can get into the habit of taking a shower every day (and I hope you have), you can get into the habit of washing a few clothing items every day. In fact, you can do both at once — many nights I took my clothes into the shower and washed them as I washed myself. There were a few nights where I didn’t wash my clothes at the end of the day (including late nights in Madrid and Bangkok, as well as some safari nights in South Africa and the Thailand-Malaysia train transit) — and this is when having two sets of socks/undies/t-shirts came in handy. To catch up, I just washed both sets the next day.
Do you think that this minimalist approach is feasible for someone with no (or limited) previous travel experience? What about solo travelers?
Since I’ve more or less been traveling-light for a living over the past 12 years, I’ll admit that the No Baggage Challenge might have come easier to me than it would have to someone with little on-the-road experience. That said, I’m a big believer in starting small and fine-tuning your travel strategy from there. If you don’t have much travel experience, just get out on the road (read my book Vagabonding for ideas and inspiration), pack a small bag, and save your no-baggage experiments for later. The more travel experience you have, the easier it will be to go ultra-light.
As for the second part of the question, I think it should be no problem to travel solo with no baggage. I traveled with my cameraman Justin, of course — but the rules of the No Baggage Challenge stipulated that I couldn’t borrow anything from him. I suppose he would have been there to intervene in an emergency — but most solo travelers are never as isolated as the term implies. Even if you leave home alone, a given vagabonding journey will be rich with the company of local people and other travelers. For the perspective of someone who has done extensive luggage-free travel on his own, check out my earlier interview with Jonathan Yevin.
Isn’t it easier to travel without luggage if you have lots of money?
I suppose loads of money can’t hurt — but money certainly isn’t the central component of a no-baggage journey. In six weeks of travel, I bought only two new gear items (a mineral salt deodorant stone, and a replacement tube of toothpaste — each cost roughly $1) outside of standard food, lodging, transportation, and admission-fee needs. And while I stayed in more luxury hotels than I would have on a normal vagabonding journey, this had everything to do with video editing and upload needs, and very little to do with the no-baggage component. In fact, I think it would be easier in many ways to travel in a backpacker-friendly setting than a luxury setting in this situation, since independent shoestring travelers are more likely to understand the charms of the no-baggage enterprise (and to help out a no-baggage traveler along the way, if need be). Plus, the most important strategy of a no-baggage journey is keeping yourself clean, and even the cheapest hostel or guesthouse will have a shower.
Did you ever do things like camping in remote locations, or do you mainly stick to hotels and hostels?
I did get pretty remote while on safari in South Africa (which is why my cameraman Justin indulged in a bush cure that involved elephant poop) — but even then I slept overnight in comfortable safari lodges. The trip was largely designed to avoid independent camping situations, but I’m not opposed to the notion. If any of you out there has ever tried a no-baggage back-country camping journey, please tell us about it in the comments!
Did electronic technology help or hinder this trip?
Electronic technology does a lot to make travel easier these days — and the iPod/iPhone alone is a very powerful tool for organizing a trip and communicating from the road. That said, I’m a big believer in balance when it comes to electronic gadgets, since being “wired” can disrupt a trip as readily as enhance it. If at times it seemed like I was slow to return emails and answer blog comments on this trip, that was no accident — since I feel I have a better travel experience when I’m mostly unplugged on the road.
In Thailand, how did your feet fare wearing socks and boots? Were you tempted to purchase sandals while in SE Asia?
Socks and boots worked great in SE Asia, but — as I said in my previous field report — I was only there for a week (and even then I was thankful to be wearing boots in many SE Asia situations, including the monsoon rains and my foray into Bangkok nightclubs). I suspect I might have been tempted to go with sandals had I been in SE Asia for, say, a month — and if anyone has done long-term no-baggage travel experiments in the tropics, please share your experiences in the comments below.
Are thrift stores common where you’ve been? If your friend Dan hadn’t lent you a sweater in New Zealand how hard would it have been to find a used one to buy?
To be honest, New Zealand was the only place I kept an eye out for thrift stores, since that was the only place I had warmer clothing in mind (and Queenstown did have an excellent Salvation Army store). But on other journeys I have seen thrift stores in places as far-flung as Iceland and Argentina — and warmer countries like Thailand and Egypt sell plenty of cheap hot-weather clothes. Moreover, even if you can’t find a thrift store, it’s not hard to borrow (as I did) — and if all else fails it’s worth it to spend a few dozen dollars on a brand-new insulation layer.
Which has been your favorite destination to date?
I can never answer this kind of question, since I liked all my destinations for different reasons. I was blown away by the beauty of New Zealand, however — and it’s always have a place in my heart for Thailand (where I lived for a couple years in the early 2000s).
What are your thoughts and feelings about the trip ending? Any further adventures in the pipeline?
I’m thrilled to have completed it. The journey sparked my imagination — not only in the traveling-light sense, but also in its reminder of how many amazing places there are out there to experience (and re-experience). That said, I am completely exhausted after having circled the globe in just six weeks, and I’m looking forward to getting back to Kansas to rest up and read some books. I have plenty of new adventures in the pipeline, so please drop by RolfPotts.com or my Vagabonding Blog for announcements on upcoming journeys (as well as great vagabonding advice from my blog writers). One event already on the docket is the inaugural Travel Hacking Conference in Rotorua, New Zealand, from Jan 24th-26th, 2011. I’ll be talking about no-baggage travel here, among other topics, so if you’ve enjoyed following this journey, please consider coming out to New Zealand to join the conversation (for 10% off the registration fee in the month of October, just use the promo code “RP1” when applying for the conference).
Before I sign off on this field report, I want to extend a heart-felt thanks to my sponsors, ScotteVest and BootsnAll Travel Network. Thanks to the support and enthusiasm of SeV founder Scott Jordan, ScotteVest has been an essential partner from the first planning-day of this journey, and (as I detailed above) my SeV gear performed splendidly for the duration of the trip. Please check out their catalog at ScotteVest.com for a full rundown of clothing options for your next journey (and keep in mind that the coupon code “NoBaggage” will get you 15% off all items at checkout through October 11th).
I also want to give a huge shout-out to my other primary sponsor, BootsnAll Travel Network — and in particular BootsnAll co-founder and CEO Sean Keener, a longtime friend and colleague, who was gung-ho about the No Baggage Challenge from the very beginning. BootsnAll hasn’t been as visible on this trip as ScotteVest (they don’t, after all, make anything I can wear on camera), but they’ve been just as essential to the journey: They donated round-the-world plane tickets to both Justin and me, they gave technical support to the website, and they were hands-on in helping us organize countless aspects of the journey (from our hostel in Madrid, to our safaris in South Africa, to our transportation in New Zealand). Sean and the folks at BootsnAll have always loved connecting and providing resources for independent travelers — so if you’re into or thinking about international or around the world travel, check out the BootsnAll Travel Network and tell them I sent you.
Thanks also to Justin Glow for doing such a spectacular job with the videos, and for being such a patient, competent, reliable travel companion.
And, finally, a huge thanks goes out to everyone who’s been following the journey since it began over six weeks ago. I’m humbled by your support and enthusiasm (as well as your questions and insights) — and I wish you all the best in your own ultra-light vagabonding journeys!