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 charging cable, 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 jog, five times a week.
And no, it’s not annoying. It’s amazing.
We own a staggering amount of stuff in the rich world. In the US, the average household has over 300,000 items. Ten percent of the population own or rent a storage facility. Bags and bags of clothing gets thrown out each year. As the late George Carlin eloquently 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 two, 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 that if I went into your house I’d find a lot of shit you don’t need or use (and equally important: things 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 what I’ve been living with(out) for the past six months. (Update: for the past year).
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 bag. Go ahead and open the nearest closet or drawer and you’ll see evidence of 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 silly, expensive headlights.
When we’re given something, buy something or just find something, 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 some time ago, 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 relax or think about meaningful things. I also had a “best before” 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 decided to travel 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.
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
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.
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.
This 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.
I use two of those small little airline cabin vanity bags to store a collection of cables, chargers and accessories. Free.
The Vapur Eclipse is a collapsible bottle, so you can roll it up when empty to save on space. It’s 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 (usually also countries without the means to properly recycle plastic).
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 a hardboiled egg. Despite them making a bit of a hipster comeback, or because of it, 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-think these; use what you can find. It is what it is. I will say, however, that the lightweight toiletry bags with hooks -so you can hang them from a towel rail- work best.
👟Footwear: two pairs
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. Sadly, they don’t make these anymore, but you can still find them on eBay.
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 California.
👖Bottoms: three items
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.
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. Probably the best trousers I’ve ever owned.
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
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.
For those chilly evenings. I like the Nike Dri-Fit ones. They’re also good for running and sun protection.
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.
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.
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.
Ex Officio makes sturdy quickdry garments for things like hiking and motorcycling. One pair.
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.
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
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
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
- Spice shaker filled with laundry powder
- SPF 50 Sunscreen
- Aluminium-free anti-perspirant
- Pack of plasters
- Headache tablets
- Sleeping tablets
- Anti-nausea tablets
- Anti-diarrhoea tablets
- Ear plugs
🔌Electrical: 30 items
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.
- Kindle Paperwhite (all books on one device, can read in the dark)
- Kindle case
- Power bank
- MicroUSB cable
- Mobile phone
- Phone charging cable
- 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 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)
- 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)