RTW Post #8: Pack Rats

09/12/13: Quito, Ecuador

Packing for a year-long trip isn’t a big decision, it’s a hundred little ones; a marathon process of elimination that starts when you choose to travel and ends when you step on the plane. Katie and I have been working our way toward minimal living for a full year now and we’re still struggling with what’s made the cut! Is it too much? Too little? Just right? Only time will tell.

Here we are, packing for the first time. I hope we improve our speed as we travel!

After determining where we’d be going on our RTW trip we were faced with our next big challenge: deciding what to bring. The first temptation is to buy a bunch of stuff. When you know you’ll be extremely limited in your belongings, it’s pleasant to imagine your things will at least be nice. Versatility is also seductive. Getting two or three uses out of one item saves space and shaves weight off your back. The goal is small, light, and adaptable. Unfortunately, when it comes to gear, the cost to size ratio is counterintuitive. Smaller ain’t cheaper.

Fancy stuff isn’t necessary, of course. In fact, most advise against it. Why carry around expensive things that could be stolen or broken? All you really need is a good pack on your back and the bare essentials. At least, that’s what true vagabonds claim. I’d like to say that we’re in the same league as those trailblazers, breaking free of our consumer bondage and living on a shoestring whilst drinking from the fountain of life. Trouble is, we’d want to use a water purifier first…

So, no, I can’t say we weren’t bitten by the gear bug. It definitely nibbled on us, though I like to think it didn’t do too much damage. Half our things we already owned and the other half we worked hard at buying on sale or on eBay. In the end, we didn’t break the bank on flashy gadgets, but we did succumb to the siren call of compact hard drives and ergonomic backpacks. What can I say? I have needs! (I’m so weak…)

Below is a sampling of some items that, for us, fit the bill for our year abroad. I can’t say whether these choices were good or bad yet, as we just started our trip today (that’s right, folks, we’re spending our first day in Quito, Ecuador as I type!). You’ll have to wait and read my recap at years end to see how everything fared. But for now, on with the gear…

While in Massachusetts, we tried out our packs a few times. I wish we'd done it more, but now we have a year of testing ahead of us!

Gregory Sage 55 Women’s Backpacks: We chose the Gregory Sage for several reasons. For one, they’re designed for women. The straps are narrow and the size fits the female form better than other backpacks. Additionally, they aren’t too big. This attracted us right away. Less room for stuff means less stuff. When there’s extra room you tend to want to fill it. Our limited capacity means maybe, just maybe, we won’t throw out our backs on this trip. Added features include a U-shaped opening across the front for easy access, an externally accessible hydration pocket, and they come with their own rain covers which can cost as much as $60 on their own! See? We’re saving money already!

Compression Sacks: While researching the best way to pack, we learned it’s important to compartmentalize your things. You don’t want everything sitting in your bag willy-nilly – it will be a functional nightmare. Instead of using packing cubes, though, we decided on using compression sacks. They keep your belongings separate and they compress your clothes down to a bite-sized bundle. Because of these puppies we were able to pack everything we need with a little room to spare.

Western Digital 2TB Passport Hard Drive: You can’t keep a year’s worth of memories on a laptop. You need backup. Plus, it’s a good idea to keep that backup away from your computer in case one gets lost, broken, or stolen. This lightweight hard drive is named appropriately, as it’s the size of a passport but with more girth. We’re able to work directly off it without any lag time, and it has enough space for our photos, videos, and more! 

Our daypacks and compression sacks (among other things). We each have three compression sacks: 1 for clothes, 1 for underwear / socks / misc., and 1 for dirty laundry.

Twelve 16GB SD Cards: Then, of course, you need backup for your backup. Katie listened to a travel podcast that threw out a sweet suggestion: after you fill an SD card with photos, send it home via snail mail. We plan on shipping one SD card home every month. That way we’ll have pictures on our hard drive, uploaded to Picasa, and on SD cards sitting safely at home. I know what you’re thinking, “The postal service is hardly reliable, Alice.” We’re well aware that there’s risk involved, but like I said, we’ll have our memories tucked away in two other locations. Besides, in my experience it’s rare that a letter goes lost. (Knock on wood)

Convertible Hiking Pants: Some travelers say this style of pants are ugly and refuse to wear them. This leaves me scratching my head. What better way to save weight than to have pants that convert into shorts? It’s the perfect scenario! Besides, I don’t think they’re that ugly, but maybe I just have poor taste in clothing (it wouldn’t surprise me). In my opinion, our pants are cute. That may be due to the fact that both Katie and I fit into the XL kid’s sizes. They aren’t designed for curves and therefore don’t sag and bag like adult pants do. Plus, kid’s sizes are cheaper. See? There are benefits to being small!

Compressible Daypacks: There’s no way we’re dealing with our large backpacks day-in and day-out. Who wants to lug those things around all the time? That’s where compressible daypacks come in. Also known as flashpacks, these small rucksacks can flatten and roll up or be expanded into sizable satchels for touring around a city. They even have pockets for a water bladders for when you want to go on a day hike. Bottom line: They’re awesome. I can’t imagine leaving home without them.

Katie relaxing in our Quito hostel alongside our worldly possessions. A controlled explosion at the moment.

Kindles: There is perhaps no better invention for travel than an e-reader. Hundreds of books at your disposal without an ounce of additional weight! Huzzah! Katie and I have already purchased several books focused on the regions we’ll be traveling to, making our reading list long and oh-so-beautiful. I can’t wait to get started! What’s more, many libraries lend out e-books now, so you can rent a book from your local library while on the other side of the world!Granted, the options aren’t unlimited, and sometimes there are waiting lists, but you can’t beat that it’s free!

Special Note: I’ve read that in other countries your Amazon account won’t work or can switch to that country. This can inhibit you buying books either abroad or once you return home. I’ll report back about our findings as we travel, but as a precaution, we purchased several books before.

Lightweight Travel Underwear: Socks and underwear win the prize for highest quantity. I can abide wearing a stinky shirt and dusty pants for several days, but not dirty drawers. Travel underwear weighs little and dries quickly, an essential quality when you’re washing your unmentionables in the sink and hanging them out for the night. On a related note, did you know floss makes an excellent clothes line?

As of right now we’ve only enjoyed one night in a hostel and I already know that every time we stop somewhere our stuff is going to explode out of our packs. It’s inevitable. If everything you bring is essential, you’re going to have to get at it, ergo: bag explosion. That said, the compression sacks, day packs, and other compartmentalization have kept damage to a minimum. And, so long as we don’t lose anything, who cares if we mess up our room? It’s not like there’s anyone around to complain. We’re on our own, and we love it!

And now, for lovers of silliness and classical music, a video of our first attempt at packing…