For most travelers, any trip longer than the better part of a week requires checking a bag. When up against a variety of climates, excursions and the possibility of not being able to do laundry, 17 pairs of undies feel rather necessary.
But if you’re doing your gap year or just off for a prolonged adventure round the world, is it possible to get away with never checking a bag? The advantages are obvious – no chance of losing your belongings, less weight to cart around and packing time is massively reduced. But do they outweigh the disadvantages?
I personally never would have thought so until a friend convinced me otherwise. We were crossing a waist-high river in Canasí, Cuba with our packs on our heads to keep them from getting wet. Having just met on a train about four hours prior, he’d joined me and my friends as we set out for a long weekend of camping. It was lucky his bag was small enough to sit on his head as we crossed the wide river. My carry on-sized bag was packed for a few days, his for several months.
He explained that for him, the trick to not checking a bag was the willingness to trade out his belongings. He’d been on the road for about two months already, and the only things he’d really had with him the whole time were his boxers, his boots and his laptop. The rest he’d traded out at thrift shops and with friends as he went. In colder places, he’d swap t-shirts for a sweater. When hiking, he’d pick up sport shorts in exchange for his jeans. There was one time he’d helped a friend pack for a move in exchange for borrowing a snowboard.
It’s a powerful and oft untapped truth that we pack more when we travel than just what’s in our bags. Often times, altruism, camaraderie and an ability to cook are more use to us than the gear we cart along. And while the point of meeting people on our adventures should never be what we can get out of them, it’s important to remember that mutual exchanges can go a long way in getting us a long way.
I taught a Catalan friend to make Jersey style hotdogs – those fat Italian beauties buried beneath a mountain of onions and peppers – and in return he lent me a tent to go camping in the Pyrenees. I once repaid the use of thermals with a week of intense English lessons.
Those kinds of exchanges might not always be available, so if you’re going to travel and not check a bag you’ve got to go with the basics and be smart. Unfortunately that means fewer fashion options, the occasional cold night and the ever-loved load of sink laundry. Each traveler must decide if the discomforts that accompany a lack of options are bested by the comfort of not having to check a bag.
If you decide they are, scout out thrift shops and bargain bins wherever you go. Your sweatshirt may be worth more than the second-hand shop gives you for it, but the t-shirts you buy next will be infinitely more valuable when it’s blistering hot and you’re hiking up a mountain. Bring just one of everything, and part with anything for something else if you actually need it.
But in addition to the two shirts, two pants and rain jacket mode of travel, we each carry a unique skill set and a hunger for getting to know the people we meet in new places. Often times their desire to get to know us – and to help us – is just as powerful as our own. Create mutually beneficial exchanges, and you’ll likely create lasting relationships to carry along with you as well. The best part is, they won’t weigh anything when you pack them up with you when you go.