Monday, November 07, 2011

Packing Like a Pro

We have written about packing before, more than once. But how you pack really does impact your travel experience. The impact is either positive or it is negative. As an independent backpacker you will never have a neutral feeling about how and what you shoved into your rucksack. One person might snicker at the seventy to one hundred Liter packs labourously being hauled past her. Conversely, the poor soul carrying that eighty Liter pack will see a thirty Liter bag hanging seemingly weightlessly off the shoulders of another person and vow to himself to pack like that savvy traveller next time. We have each been travelling for a total of two out of the last eight years, almost always together. Not once in this time has a seventy-Liter-plus backpacker been evangelical about their pack size to us. But more of these folks than I can remember have asked us, "Is that all you have?" We can almost see a twinkle in their far away eyes when we say, "Yes." When you are considering what size your primary bag should be, keep in mind that just because your trip is big, doesn't mean your bag has to be. Mine is twenty-eight Liters and Kristen's is (an exorbitant) thirty-two Liters.

While on the topic of bags, it is important to have a good day bag. Thin, light and easy to stuff away are good characteristics for a day pack to have. We both carry a twelve Liter bag that we can pull out if we need to pack a picnic lunch or to carry whatever else.

Probably where we see most backpackers over-pack most often is with clothing. Carry five complete outfits if you really want to. For us, we find it works perfectly well to wear an outfit and have a second outfit folded in the bag. Depending where and when we are venturing, we will also pack a warm layer or rain wear. That being said, it is nice to have a supply of five pairs of socks and maybe even that many pairs of underwear if you get all funny about the hypothetical possibility of wearing them for more than one day in a row. All of this goes along with my thought that even in "regular" life, a lot of people seem to wash clothing that really doesn't need to be washed just yet. Its partly a water conservation thing. Anyway, I'll get back on track.

As for clothing, there are so many outdoor stores that are more than happy to outfit you in the latest outdoor performance clothing. You can find anything from quick dry fabric to moisture wicking material to shirts with SPF 40 ratings. That stuff is pretty expensive, though. It doesn't get the flashy marketing that these other products get, but Poly-Cotton mixes dry very quickly, don't wrinkle, are surprisingly durable and are available in every imaginable colour and pattern at every department store for less than $20.

You see, any fabric with at least thirty to forty percent polyster content or nylon is quick dry and wrinkle free, a good combination for any traveller. All you have to do is look at the shirt or pant tags to find out what will work for you.

Socks deserve special attention. There are so many options out there. But all socks are not created equal. You will probably come across the wool-nuts. One tag line for those in love with wool is, "Even if your wool is completely soaked, it will still keep you warm." They sell wool as if it is the obvious accessory to a machete that will be used to slice through uncharted Amazon territory. But if you're like us, you just want to adventure around the relatively well charted lands and not become the next Survivor Man. Besides, who really thinks walking around in wet socks is a novel idea anyway? Every department store has a wall of socks of all sorts. Most are 100% cotton. These aren't good travel socks. Look around the thinner, dressier socks and you will find polyester socks. Don't be put off by the idea of polyester: these are what most men wear when they dress up and they don't even know it! These socks are cheap, thin (read: more can be packed into less space) and dry super fast.

While talking about feet I should mention just how important good shoes are. I wear walking shoes and they double as hiking boots when I need them to. When they feel old-shoe-comfortable when I try them on in the store, I know I have found the right walking shoe. As I break them in they only become more comfortable. The comfort is important, but being waterproof is great too. I have worn Goretex walkers for years and haven't found anything better or more multi-purpose. This comes at a price, though. Where my whole travel wardrobe costs about $100 to $150 and lasts at least four years of travels, my shoes cost around $300 alone and seldom do they last even two years with the amount of walking I do. To me, it is worth the cost. Also, it doesn't upset me too much when they come as a birthday present.

Aside from over packing and carrying more weight on your shoulders while searching for a guest house than necessary, maybe the single worst thing a traveller can do is bring a quick dry microfiber towel. Ask anyone who has carried one what their experience with it was and I am pretty sure most people will mention how awful they smell after very few uses. You can wash them, but the first time you use it after washing it the horrible smell comes triumphantly back. Cotton is generally not a good fabric for travellers. It dries rather slowly and wrinkles notoriously. But a really thin cotton sarong will dry quick enough to be useful and it will efficiently dry you off after a shower and will never develop a smell. It is the only piece of cotton that I carry. These things are cheaper and much superior to the microfiber smellowels.

Electronics won't get much floor time here, but there is one product that I would like to mention. I am a book-lover. I love how they feel in my hands, I love how even the most simple cover design looks, I love that a book is there to impart something that interested another person, and I love how books smell. But they can be heavy in a backpack. Until this trip I was quite anti-Kindle for all the above it couldn't provide. But now the pros of the Kindle have interested us enough to make us really consider whether its cons might be outweighed, at least for travelling. A bonus to all the book side of the Kindle is that some models come with 3G. We haven't travelled with a Kindle yet, but it is possible that we might in the future.

Probably the best bit of packing wisdom we stick with is to pack for the best case scenario (or at least the most realistic one) and buy yourself out of problems. No, you won't be considered crazy if you only pack one 100g bottle of shampoo on your trip. Everyone else in the world bathes, too (some more often than others), and they have to buy their shampoo somewhere: its called a store and you can buy more shampoo there when you run out.

There is just one more thing. Whether it is the beginning, middle or end of your trip, the feeling of clearing customs and walking straight past the luggage carousels (where less fortunate travellers are waiting for their big, bumbly bags to appear) and then right out of the airport with your carry-on size bag is nothing short of wonderful. It really wouldn't be an overstatement to say that this is one of the true joys of travelling. Smart packing is light packing.


Anonymous said...

rehyllinHi J and K,
It looks as if you did this blog, giving K a break. You covered the ground well and it would be good information for someone starting to travel.My travelling days are over and I expect the next one will be up! At 94 I have many travels to recall and enjoy. Unfortunately,neither I nor Auntie Eileen are able to bring up your list of photos, but maybe when you come you will be more successful. It is always good to be in touch with you and to know you are both doing well and meeting some very interesting people. You Dad keeps me up-to-date on our Saturday talk talk.
Love and best wishes.

Mom and Dad Mooney said...

Hi J and K good blog for someone starting out to travel, it all makes sense. I need to get Mom to read and reread it a few times, I have to try convince her less is better.Take care, looking forward to Dec.21 Love and miss you both Dad

Bron Simpson said...

Hi guys! Totally agree with all of that...
So true about the towels- and the microfibre ones don't dry you properly, just smear the water around!
I bought a small thin cotton one in India (sorry- bit late to tell you now) which is kind of like tea towel material- its great.
Loving your blog, and glad you are kind of coming round the the Kindle idea! Bron and Dave

andie28 said...

hello guys!

great blog and its inspiring. it makes me think of traveling more and some out of my country.

safe trip anyways!