HOW TO TRAVEL WITH NOTHING (AND SMELL LIKE ROSES)
When explaining the mechanics behind No Baggage I usually point out that traveling with zero baggage and zero plans is more of a harebrained thought experiment than...you know...a practical method of travel (at least travel in the traditional tourist sense). My goal has never been to prove that extreme minimalist travel is, in fact, survivable; my goal is to observe what organically unfolds in situations where the unknowns temporarily outnumber the knowns (whether that leads to mostly-abandoned Soviet steel factories or haunted Norwegian schoolhouses or border crossings with bad reputations).
That being said, after completing five No Baggage trips through climates ranging from arid desert to alpine tundra to Amazon jungle, I have come by a few practical tips that make traveling ultra-light more of an afterthought than a hassle. Learn from my blunders and check out some of my favorite suggestions below.
I went into my first luggage-less trip resigned to the fact that I was probably going to smell like a pubescent gym sock for three weeks straight. I was pleasantly surprised when my assumption proved (mostly) wrong. Though my traveling partner Jeff typically stuffs a passport, phone, and notebook in his pockets and calls it a day, I usually bring a very small purse as women's clothing is woefully lacking in the pockets department. Any meager purse space that remains after passport, wallet and phone is unilaterally devoted to fending off a hot mess.
- TEETH: It's the little things - like scunge covered molars - that quickly chip away at a psychological sense of wellbeing. A fold-up toothbrush and tube of travel-sized toothpaste are critical for maintaining morale (especially if you plan on getting cozy with anyone on the road). I buy the toothpaste beforehand - small tubes of toothpaste are not universally available.
- ODOR: While a travel-size stick of deodorant does take up serious real estate, it earns its keep on occasions when showers are not handy.
- SOAP: For soap I bring a 2 ounce bottle of Dr Bronner's high concentrate peppermint soap. A few potent drops serve as face wash, laundry detergent, and even shampoo in a pinch. The minty freshness shocks all the grime away and one bottle lasts a whole trip.
- GROOMING: I like to keep a shaving razor on hand. To save space, I now just bring the tip of the razor and leave the handle at home. I also bring a pair of small, fold-up nail clippers if the trip is longer than 10 days because I've found long fingernails to be another minor-yet-distracting annoyance.
- LAYERS: Inquiries into my travel philosophy are second only to the Great Arcane Mystery of what I wear (or don't wear! teehee!) while my clothes are in the wash. The answer is hugely anti-climactic: I just bring a large, lightweight scarf that doubles as a toga-style wrap while my clothes are otherwise indisposed. Lightweight layers, boxer-style underwear, and cotton undershirts are also great if wandering around in the buff is not an option.
- WASHING: In lieu of a washing machine, I adapt a sink or tub. I fill the basin with water, throw the clothes in, add soap, scrub by hand (whilst channeling my midwestern dirt farming ancestors), soak, and then wring tightly. After washing, I look for an ideal place to hang dry: an open window with good airflow, the top of an air conditioning unit, in front of a fan, balcony racks, or even that ancient drying mechanism many people refer to as the sun. I wash underwear everyday, socks every other day, and the rest as needed.
- BATHING: Many places have A+ public bath and sauna cultures - Budapest, Istanbul, Tbilisi, and most of Scandinavia and Japan, to name a few that I can personally vouch for. Visiting a popular public bath is an excellent way to clean up and enjoy a dose of traditional culture at the same time. Just err on the side of courtesy and do as the locals do if you're nervous about proper bathing etiquette.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
When you have almost nothing, the items you do bring take on a new importance. A single outfit, worn and washed for three weeks straight, suffers a surprising amount of wear and poorly made clothes begin to look like they were accidentally devoured by a vacuum after just a few days. While Jeff and I fall on the lower-budget end of the travel spectrum, we've learned to spend more money on our clothing up front, especially if we're going to be traveling through challenging climates.
- SHOES: A fantastic pair of shoes is the single most important preventive measure if you hope to avoid weeping in agony on the side of the road. Seriously. There's almost nothing that can derail a mood faster than blisters or a painful fit. It takes work to find a single pair of shoes that can both support your feet and adapt to the variety of travel scenarios you might find yourself in (anything from urban city centers to remote hiking trails), but it is possible. Before any big trip, take the time to try on and break in the right pair of shoes. Also, bring a few bandaids for problem spots that only show up after a few miles of walking.
- SOCKS: It only takes one encounter with foul-smelling socks to convince you that a good pair of socks is almost as important as a good pair of shoes (yes, I speak from experience that, even now, haunts the senses). Do yourself and everyone in a 50 foot radius a favor and invest in some well made, quick dry socks .
- CLIMATE: Dressing for the occasion is important - both seasonally and culturally (tank tops and shorts are not appropriate in some regions of the world). The easiest No Baggage trips have been to destinations that have a relatively uniform climate. Whether frigid or warm, one outfit does the job for every location. It gets more complicated when a single trip encompasses wildly different climate zones. On our trip through Ecuador and Peru, my outfit was appropriate for exactly half of the climates we visited and totally miserable for the other half (ie. mountain boots and a winter hat were great in the Andean highlands but laughable in the Atacama Desert). If you are planning to travel through varied climates, easily removable layers are your best bet. Either that or plan on investing in a wardrobe change somewhere along the way.
THE BEST LAID PLANS
Depending on your travel style and level of expectation, spontaneous travel with few plans or bookings can either be full of marvelous memories...or a total nightmare. Experiences that require advance reservations are hit and miss if you choose to go with a more impromptu form of travel. (We once made it all the way to the base of Machu Picchu only for train tickets to sell out at the last moment.) Before setting out, it's best to banish your #FOMO and accept that there are no guarantees. On the other hand, traveling without a set itinerary allows for incredible spontaneity which in turn allows for the sorts of magical experiences that tend to manifest when you aren't looking for anything in particular. If you do forego a strict itinerary, here are some tools you can use to orient within the moment. (I'm a digital native, so most of these involve technology.)
- NAVIGATION: While there's a fine art to getting lost within a city, there are also moments when you just need to know how to get from Point A to Point B. Maps aren't an issue if you're traveling with a smart phone and satellite connection, but they can be for those (like me) who travel with smart phones but can't afford an international data plan. Still, there are lots of ways to use your offline phone to your advantage. Mega cities with complex transportation networks often offer free offline apps with metro/subway maps. Larger cities, too, typically have free city apps full of offline maps and information on what to see and do. Downloading a Lonely Planet guide onto your smart phone or pad is another great way to get a quick overview of every city and region without lugging around a heavy book and instantly revealing your tourist status. Also, if I have temporary WiFi access, I often screenshot my Google Maps route at different zoom levels. (Side note: though I do rely on my smart phone while traveling, I actually prefer to engage with my surroundings without constant WiFi access.)
- LANGUAGE: Free smart phone apps are also a fantastic tool for practicing the basic phrases in whichever culture you're visiting. While smiles and hand gestures can get you far, just being able to say please, thank you, yes, no, hello and goodbye also goes a long way in establishing rapport - especially when asking for directions or help. Plus, as a visiting guest, it's just good manners.
- LOCALS: Hands down, the best resource in any new place is the people who already live there. In terms of understanding the true spirit and history of a place, leaving the tourist bubble and interacting with locals (not to mention investing in local economies!) is really the only way to go. Couchsurfing is a great option for staying with locals. You can also rent an AirBnb room from a host who shares the house or apartment. EatWith, another new app, offers vetted dinners prepared by local hosts who want to share their culinary culture with travelers. I have locals to thank for incredible lookouts, authentic cuisine, intimate conversations, secret gems, travel advisories, and all sorts of advice on where to head next.
- SOUVENIRS: "But what about souvenirs?" I get this one all the time. For me, removing the emphasis on packing stuff also removes the emphasis on buying stuff. Occasionally I slip a few postcards in my purse. Sometimes I also pick up a few things at the local crafts market in whichever city I happen to be flying out of on the final day of the trip. I look for small prints, textiles, and gifts made by local artists. For the most part, though, the experience is what I carry home. I've never regretted not buying a cheap knickknack.