Living with less. Everything I own now fits into a single carry-on bag

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I don’t own a lot. A grand total of 116 items, to be precise. That number includes things like my iPhone’s permanent bumper case and spare cables, but not necessarily each individual headache tablet in my toiletries bag (the bag is also counted, however). I rotate between two t-shirts most of the time and do a quick small of laundry in the bathroom sink after each and every run, five times a week.

No, it’s not annoying. It’s amazing.

We own a staggering amount of stuff in the rich world. In the US, there are over 300,000 items in the average household. Ten percent of the population which own or rent a storage facility. Bags and bags of clothing gets thrown out each year. As George Carlin beautifully said: “We buy shit we don’t need, with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like”.

Take a load off, Fanny

I decided to take a year (or ten!) off to travel, live frugally and work less, if at all. Your lifestyle situation might be different from mine, but I’d venture to guess if I went into your house I’d find a lot of shit you don’t need or use (and equally important: something that someone else probably needs and will use). Do you really need three wooden stirring spoons? What about that goodie bag given to you at the last conference?

I’m not going to Marie Kondo you by telling you to join her cleaning cult, where you lovingly greet your hand-picked items as you get home each day. Nor will I tell you to obsess over all the entertaining /r/onebag Reddit threads. Instead, I’ll just show you what I’ve been doing and living with(out) for the past six months.

For once, this isn’t an article about marketing, personal finance, building startups or about Bitcoin (and it might be a while before I pen one of those again). Don’t get me wrong: I love solving problems, helping team members accomplish goals, building things that matter (and getting paid to do so!), but after an uninterrupted stretch of very hard and rewarding work between 2011 and 2018 I thought I could do with a bit of a rest. I’ll get into the things I want to accomplish, the budget I’m doing it on, and the side projects I’m tinkering with in a separate article.

Why we hoard

For hundreds of thousands of years, we lived lives of incredible scarcity. We had no idea where our next meal or useful item would come from. Every item we stumbled upon (or created) was kept, just in case it might come in useful later.

Fast-forward to our current life of cheap goods, mass production, convenience and overabundance. Something in us, so the theory goes, still clings to that historic mindset where you either consume or store almost all the things that are given to you. That souvenir mug, the conference notepad, the tote Go ahead and open the nearest closet or drawer and see if you find something like this.

The endownment effect is also at play. You see, we value the things we already own — things given to us or crap we bought–  much higher than normal. What to you is a beautiful, trusty and reliable friend, one that has taken you on some of the best road trips in your life, to me is just a silly French car, one that requires silly custom tools to replace the headlights.

When we’re given something (a notepad, tote bag, souvenir mug or anything else, no matter how useless), the hunter-gatherer part of your brain still says “Hey, I might need this one day” and you stick it in a drawer somewhere.

I’ve been pretty good at cutting down the unnecessary noise, weight and distractions from most parts of my life over the past few years. I got rid of almost my entire wardrobe, and swapped it out for my day-to-day uniform: a pair of jeans and a stack of identical black t-shirts. I had three button down shirts for “formal” work events, but for the most part I didn’t have to think about creating matching outfits each day. More time to sleep or think about meaningful stuff. I also had a box in a closet where I would put things I didn’t really use or wear. If I didn’t go and actually look for the item in a few months, I’d just donate it.

Since I’ve decided to travel the world and find a new place to call home –after a lovely seven years in Cape Town– I get to be particularly light. I did the logical thing and sold nearly everything I had: my car, my furniture and nearly all other worldly possessions. I’m running an experiment on myself to see with how little I can live and how meaningful (or frustrating) that life will be. Spoiler: it’s as meaningful as I want it to be and any real frustration has yet to materialise.

Yes, everything I own fits into a small, carry-on sized backpack.

Everything I own
This is everything I own

I toyed with the idea of downsizing for a while, but I didn’t realise just how great it would be to live and travel this way. I can now pack my bag in about five minutes, I get to zoom past airport baggage carousels, my bag goes under my seat on buses, I strap it down on the back of a motorcycle in fifteen seconds and I can walk with it as far as I need to; be it navigating a city’s public transportation or hiking for a day or two.

As with everything, there are trade-offs, but for me the benefits greatly outweigh any real or perceived disadvantages. Experiences may differ, but mine has been incredible.

Anyway, below is the full list, in case you were wondering.

🎒Bags and cases: 12 items

Osprey Porter backpack

After a few days of of research, I picked the Osprey Porter 46 as my main piece of luggage. It’s almost perfect: I like the way it looks –good enough to take take it straight to a conference or meeting from the airport–  it’s very sturdy, comfortable and well-designed. It fits almost all airlines’ overhead luggage requirements, including no-frills airlines (tested on Air Asia, Vueling and Ryanair) and unlike most other bags, your heavy laptop sits flush against your back. Note that this bag is only available in the US.

Deuter day pack

This is arguably the more important bag, since you’ll be more likely to carry it around than your larger bag. Depending on your style of traveling or living, you’ll probably have a place to put your main bag down, be it your hotel, AirBnb or train station locker. Deuter makes strong bags, this one fits my laptop and other valuables, has a rain cover and is small enough to easily fit into my larger carry-on bag. Most importantly, I’ve already owned it for many years, so I didn’t have to spend anything on it.

Packing cubes

Pro Packing CubesThis is the best way to stay organised, to pack tighter and faster. Go for the colourful cubes (mine are all black and it makes it more difficult to distinguish between the sports cube and my main clothing cube). Roll your clothes (use the army burrito), you’ll save a lot of space.

Electronics pouch

I use two of those small little airline cabin vanity bags to store a collection of cables, chargers and accessories. Free.

Water bottle

The Vapur Eclipse is a collapsible bottle, so you can roll it up when empty to save on space. It’s very sturdy, doesn’t leak and by filling it up in hotel lobbies and public water fountains, I’m cutting down a lot on my plastic use in countries where you can’t drink the tap water.

Bum bag

Great for music festivals and motorbike rides when you don’t want to wear a backpack. This one from Decathlon folds up about the size of an egg. Despite them making a bit of a hipster comeback, I won’t be wearing it for anything day-to-day yet.

Toiletry bag, laundry bag and sunglasses case

You don’t need to over-engineer this; use what you can find. It is what it is. I will say, however, that the lightweight toiletry bags with hooks work best.

👟Footwear: two pairs

Sneakers

I needed a pair of multi-purpose sneakers. As with most of my clothes, I looked for something black, that doesn’t show a logo and can be used for normal and active wear. The Nike Free RN CMTR is comfy, dries fast, is good for running, trails and and looks good enough to wear even with business-casual clothes.

Sandals

Rainbow sandals are virtually indestructible. I’ve had a pair for over five years now of near-constant use. The biggest drawback is that people might think you’re from Southern California.

👖Bottoms: three items

Shorts

Outlier has a bit of a cult following and I joined the club. Yes, they’re super expensive, but they make some of the most durable clothes around. The shorts look reasonably good, they’re comfy and they’re incredibly strong. You can also use them for dirty outdoor stuff, running and even swimming. I’ve been wearing their New Way Shorts for six months straight and they still look great. My only complaint is that they didn’t include a zippered pocket and sits a bit baggy.

Trousers

Again I went with Outlier. Their Slim Dungarees (which aren’t really dungarees) have the comfort of yoga pants, yet they’re incredibly rugged and looks great – good enough to wear for smart-casual business events or a date night. I’ve worn a pair for a three thousand kilometre motorcycle ride and they still look great. Expensive, but again worth it and I’d definitely get a replacement pair if I lost these.

Belt

It doubles as a strap to tie things down with, but hardly ever wear it and since it’s made of leather and metal it’s got a bit of weight to it. I’m considering getting rid of it. (Update: tossed it)

👕Shirts: five items

Day-to-day t-shirts

Unbound Merino also have a cult following that I seemed to have joined. I probably won’t wear cotton shirts again.  They initially launched as a (very successful) crowdfunded campaign, now claiming to be the makers of the “world’s finest travel clothing”. Their shirts (and everything else) are great: they’re made from thin wool, which feels great, dries overnight and is great for climate control, doesn’t wrinkle, stain or smell. I have three of these.

Warmer shirt

For those chilly evenings. I like the Nike Dri-Fit ones. They’re also good for running and sun protection.

Party shirt

I don’t need a party shirt, but fuck it, we all tneed some colour and my Hawaiian shirt has come in surprisingly handy. Festivals, dress up parties and just those nights when you want to have cocktails on the beach and look like a tourist.

🏃‍Sports gear: Five items

I love running (and it’s pretty much the only sport I do). You need virtually no gear, you can do it in most places and it’s one of the best ways to see new neighbourhoods.

Running shirt

The Rhone Sentry is the best cross-training shirt I’ve come across. It’s incredibly strong, looks good, doesn’t show an insignia and it dries fast. I got mine for $20 at an outlet store, but I’ll happily pay the sticker price (I’ve worn mine for a year and a half of near-constant use already).

Running (and swimming) shorts

Black pair of Puma shorts; they’re cheap, strong and they look/act just like swimming trunks. Why do almost all sportswear have bright logos on them; I hate being a walking billboard.

Running socks

Darn Tough merino. These are the best and strongest socks I’ve ever owned. Incredible. Takes a bit of time to dry, however.

Running cap and running belt

Whatever I found at Decathlon for under $5.

🧦Underwear: six pairs

Day to day briefs

The ones from Unbound Merino are great (I got the shirt-sock-undies combo packs). You just need two pairs.

Quickdry briefs

Ex Officio makes sturdy quickdry garments for things like hiking and motorcycling. One pair.

Running briefs

Champion makes affordable and durable running gear. I’ve had this pair for thousands of miles of jogging. They do the job and dry very quickly.

Day-to-day socks

Unbound Merino, again. One pair.

🛌Sleepwear: two items

Shorts and a shirt

A pair of cotton shorts which can also double as a backup pair when my main pair is drying (and they are modest enough so that I can wear them in communal spaces) and a light t-shirt to sleep in.

🧥Jackets: two items

Ultralight jacket

The Patagonia Houdini jacket is amazingly compact: it folds down to the size of a Coke can. It’s small enough for me to always throw it in a bag when I step out the door and gives decent wind and rain protection.

Wind and rain shell

Columbia makes soft shells that are strong enough to be taken into the wild, but ones stylish enough where you don’t get confused for a war correspondent.

🧢 Headgear: two items

Warm hat

Use a merino buff as a warm hat, a scarf, eye mask, face mask or many other ways.

Sunglasses

I got a $25 pair of standard CKs at an outlet store. I prefer the plastic-framed ones and they work well for day-to-day wear, the beach and running.

🚿Toiletries: 22 items

  • Quickdry microfibre towel
  • Soap and shampoo bottle
  • Toothpaste
  • Spice shaker filled with laundry powder
  • SPF 50 Sunscreen
  • Nailclippers
  • Aluminium-free anti-perspirant
  • Pack of plasters
  • Headache tablets
  • Sleeping tablets
  • Anti-nausea tablets
  • Anti-diarrhoea tablets
  • Ear plugs

🔌Electrical: 30 items

Audio

I have a pair of Wired earphones (and a stupid Apple headphone adapter, because Apple is stupid), a waterproof Bluetooth speaker, wireless earphones & carry case. I’ve tried many, many types of earphones and the Bose SoundSport ones strike the best balance between quality and price. They’re also the only ones that don’t seem to pop out of my ears on long runs.

Other electrical

  • Kindle Paperwhite (all books on one device, can read in the dark)
  • Kindle case
  • Power bank
  • MicroUSB cable
  • Mobile phone
  • Phone charging cable
  • Laptop
  • Laptop hard case
  • Laptop soft sleeve
  • Laptop charger
  • Hardware wallet
  • USB thumb drive
  • Philips trimmer (good enough for beard and general manscaping)
  • Philips Sonicare Toothbrush (worth the weight)
  • Spare toothbrush heads
  • Toothbrush charger
  • USB wall socket (one US & one EU)
  • GoPro (I only use this when diving, so might sell it and just rent one)

Other items 🛂

  • Passport
  • Passport case
  • Caribiner (to clip dirty shoes to backpacks, bags to motorcycles and so on)
  • Shoelace as a laundry line
  • Small combination padlock & coiling cable (to tie luggage to furniture, when needed)
  • International Driving Permit
  • Money clip (with five different cards)
  • Pen
  • Spare passport photos
  • Cutlery (fork-spoon-knife set, to use less plastic when at supermarkets or getting takeout)
  • Elastic rubber bands to tie random things down
  • Motorcycle riding gloves — I’ll toss these when I leave Asia (update: tossed)

About the author

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at the fast-moving Bitcoin Exchange, Luno (South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Europe). Currently travelling and doing research on a round-the-world trip.

4 comments

  • Love this but it seems so unreal. Been slowly getting rid of clutter. What do you do when you get invited to a wedding? Rent a suit?

    • Yeah, it sounds a little unreal, but I’ve found that everytime I leave home, travel or just misplace something: other than for a few basic things (that I always use or wear, I just don’t miss any of the other things. I usually go “Oh, I forgot I had all this crap” and then keep on not using any of it ;-)

      As for weddings, I haven’t got any coming up, but I’d either rent a suit if required or if it’s casual enough (as most weddings are these days), I just buy a nice-enough button-up shirt (my grey long trousers look smart enough). I’d rather spend the ~$50 on a shirt (and maybe shoes) once every two years as a cost of attending a wedding of people I like and donate them when done than lugging it all around. Would be different if I’m more permanently in one place, I’m sure.

      Hope your uncluttering is going well!

  • This is how I live, and yes, it is AMAZING. Even with children, even with formal events, there is an easy way around it. Best thing from your article is the packing cubes.

    Perhaps you can add how you underwent your “material de-attachment”?

    • Glad to hear we’re in the same ultralight club ;-) Regard detachment, I just decided to be brutally honest about it and asking myself if I 1. actually get any joy out of the thing and 2. actually (and consistently) use it. In most cases the answer was no. I decided to sell things that were just lying around and not being used (I’m looking at you, snowboard circa 2009), sell it online and invest that money into a low-cost ETF or money market account. I can always buy another second-hand snowboard (if I really need it) and at least now it’s being used by the person who bought it from me and my money isn’t just standing unused in a closet.

By Werner van Rooyen

About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at the fast-moving Bitcoin Exchange, Luno (South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Europe). Currently travelling and doing research on a round-the-world trip.