How to Travel 12 Countries with No Baggage Whatsoever

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Starting tomorrow, travel writer Rolf Potts will embark on a trip that will take him around the world without using a single piece of luggage. This post will explain how he’s going to do it, and there’s a kick-ass giveaway at the end…

For six weeks he will explore 12 countries on five continents, crossing the equator four times, without carrying so much as a man-purse. The few items he does bring will be tucked away in his pockets. Though he’s a seasoned minimalist traveler (famous from his book Vagabonding), he usually travels with a single overhead-bin-perfect backpack, the Eagle Creek Thrive 65L. It’s been his go-to bag for the last 3-4 years.

So why attempt to travel the world with no luggage at all?

Rolf sees his journey as a real-time experiment in traveling ultra-light, and “a field-test for a more philosophical idea — that what we experience in life is more important than what we bring with us.”

While circumnavigating the globe with no luggage sounds like a clear enough proposition, it can raise a few semantic issues. What, for example, counts as a bag? Rolf has set up a set of ground rules to guide his own journey, including:

– No bags on the journey (not even a man-purse or grocery store bag, unless the latter is used en route to a meal).
– No borrowing items from his cameraman or using his cameraman as a pack mule.
– Borrowing or buying items along the way is permitted but excludes bags.

Since most people don’t travel with a film crew, Rolf’s advice for the average no-baggage traveler is a bit broader than the rules he’s set for himself. Here are 8 key tips from Rolf on how to plan and execute a no-luggage journey.

In Rolf’s words…

1) Manage the journey from your mobile phone.

A smartphone could well be the most important tool for a baggage-less traveler. It can store your boarding passes and other important documents, make phone calls from virtually anywhere in the world (with a swappable SIM card) and even act as a miniature blogging tool.

I recommend an iPhone with a foldable Bluetooth keyboard, which allows you to fit your mobile office inside a single jacket pocket. The iPhone can be loaded with a series of applications to replace everyday day items carried on a normal trip. The Kindle app lets you leave behind bulky books, and Genius Scan lets you use you iPhone’s camera as a makeshift scanner so you can quickly save receipts and email them to yourself on the fly. Wikihood utilizes the phone’s GPS to serve location-relevant Wikipedia articles, which is a unique and interesting alternative to a guidebook. Throw in your favorite currency converter, phrase book, and flight tracker, and you’ve got a single device in your pocket more powerful than its dead-weight paper counterparts.

Some recommedations:
TripTracker by PageOnce
Lonely Planet series of phrase books (multiple links depending on language)
_blank">Currency converter: “Currency”

2) Keep your footwear simple and practical.

With no bags, the only shoes you’re going to want to bring is whatever you’re wearing from day to day.

I’m traveling with a pair of Blundstone boots I bought in Australia in 2006. I’ve worn these boots all over the world the past four years, from Paris to Ethiopia to the Falkland Islands, and they’ve served me great. They work for hiking in remote environments, yet they’re easy to slip off and on at airport security.

Some travelers might prefer Chaco or Teva sandals (if nothing else to save packing socks) — and I won’t fault them for that — but my Blundstones look nice enough that they will get me into places where sandals might seem too informal. You are on your feet constantly when you travel, of course, so whichever footwear you choose to bring (be it sandals or boots or running shoes), make sure you aim for comfort, simplicity, and durability.

(Note from Tim: I opt for darker-colored Keen Newport Bison Leather Sandals. If you use black or dark socks, since they have closed toes, you can easily get into restaurants or even pass for business casual if you tuck the tightening strings in.)

3) Buy or borrow certain items as you go.

An old vagabonding adage goes, “Pack twice the money and half the gear.”

The same notion applies to no-luggage travel — even if you’re only packing a tenth of the gear. If a journey takes you to a beautiful beach region, odds are you can buy rubber flip-flop sandals there for a few dollars. If a given city is rainy, cheap umbrellas should be in plentiful supply — and if you get sick, the world is full of pharmacies (many of which are better-suited to cure local ailments that whatever medicine you might have packed).

Should you travel your way into cold weather, thrift stores are a good place to buy a warm jacket (which can be given way to a needy person or left in a hostel swap-box when you leave). You can also borrow things from other travelers along the way. You don’t want to be obnoxious about this, of course, but most travelers don’t mind sharing a spot of toothpaste or a couple of aspirin, and asking for these kinds of things can be a great way to strike up a conversation at the hostel or on the hiking trail.

4) Be disciplined and strategic with what you choose to bring along.

Packing light can be enough of a challenge when you have a small backpack, let alone when you have to keep all your gear in your pockets. This in mind, don’t bring anything you’re not going to use every day.

Nail clippers can be borrowed along the way; rain ponchos can be purchased on rainy days. I left my razor out of the equation (it was better to let my beard grow and then get a hard razor shave in Morocco), and before the trip I cut my hair so short I won’t ever need shampoo. Any big-box retailer should have bins of tiny deodorants and collapsible toothbrushes to keep your toiletries micro-sized. Camping stores will sell 3-ounce snap-top storage bottles that work well for toting concentrated laundry detergent or multipurpose liquid soap. Err on the side of minimalism; you can buy or borrow items along the way.

5) Wear travel gear with strategically located pockets.

If you travel without any bags, this means whatever gear you bring will have to fit in your pockets. My journey is co-sponsored by ScotteVest, an Idaho-based sportswear company that specializes in travel clothing with multiple pockets.

Most of my gear fits into the ScotteVest Tropical Jacket, which has 18 pockets of differing sizes. A majority of these pockets are accessed from the inside, which (a) is a nice deterrent against pickpockets, and (b) saves me the “dork factor” of looking like I’m traveling the world dressed like a confused trout fisherman. I can carry a majority of my gear in this jacket without looking ridiculous — plus the sleeves zip off, so I usually wear it as a vest. I’m also wearing a pair of Ultimate Cargo Pants from ScotteVest, though I’ve packed light enough that I rarely have to use the large cargo pockets. ScotteVest isn’t the only company that makes travel gear with utility pockets, of course; your local camping outfitter or travel-specialty store should provide you multiple gear options, and you can choose the clothing that best fits your needs.

6) Use a minimal rotation of clothing.

Essentially, you’ll want to travel with little more than the clothes on your back — but you will want to bring a few spare clothing items to keep things fresh and ensure you won’t get too stinky.

Given that I wear cargo pants, a travel vest, socks, underwear, and a short-sleeved t-shirt under a long-sleeved shirt on a typical day of my trip, I keep one spare t-shirt, two extra pairs of socks, and two extra pairs of underwear in my pockets.

Each night I wash the day’s socks, underwear and t-shirt in the hotel/hostel sink, and these items are dry enough to pack by morning. I’ve been washing the cargo pants about once a week (and I have yet to wash the travel vest). Some people take short no-luggage trips with even fewer clothes, but my arrangement isn’t bulky and ensures that I always have a rotation of fresh socks, underwear and t-shirts.

(Note from Tim: Here what I pack for an uber-light trip, in this example less than 10 pounds total. ExOfficio underwear are a lifesaver.)

7) Utilize the postal system for souvenirs and extra gear

With airlines baggage fees quickly spiraling upward, many travelers these days are saving money and hassle by mailing certain items to one or more destinations along their itinerary.

If, say, you’re traveling from warm climates into cold climates, you can mail your warm clothing to the first cool destination (just make a pre-arrangement with the hotel you’ll be staying at in that location). On that same token, traveling without luggage doesn’t mean you have to forgo buying souvenirs — if just means you won’t be able to carry them. To solve this problem, just hit the local post office and mail that Balinese mask or Latvian amber or Syrian silk home.

This is actually a strategy that can be employed when you’re traveling with luggage: The souvenirs you find along the way might be nice, but there’s no sense in dragging them along with you. It’s worth the expense to ship them.

8) Remember: Travel is about the experience, not what you bring with you.

In the end, that remember that going without luggage and packing ultra-light need not be an extreme act. It isn’t a contest, or a rite of travel-superiority: It’s just a great way to eliminate distractions and concentrate on the experience of the journey itself.

Freed of baggage, there’s little to forget or lose on the road. You don’t have to stow anything, guard anything, or wait for anything (aside from the occasional train or bus): You can just throw yourself into the adventure and make the most of your travels.

###

If you’ve ever fantasized about taking time off to globe-trot, I would highly recommend Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. It is one of only two books I took with me when I traveled the world for 18 months. Outside Magazine founding editor Tim Cahill calls Vagabonding “the most sensible book of travel related advice ever written.”

I recently partnered with Rolf to release the exclusive audiobook for Vagabonding. For more on this incredible book, click here.

Afterword: So how’s Rolf doing? How’s he actually holding up? Check out his progress here, in real-time on the RTW (Round-The-World) blog.

Question of the Day (QOD): What tricks for light travel have you learned along the way? Please share in the comments. The more detail, the better.

Prize of the Post: Leave an answer to the QOD by this Sunday at midnight PST (8/22), and one of the best comments (hard to objectively say one is “best”) will get a Sonos ZonePlayer 120 ($499 retail) and two Klipsch speakers ($389 retail)! Just download the Sonos app for iPhone/iPod Touch, and you’ve got a killer home stereo system that can play just about anything, including Pandora and Rhapsody.

The goodies will ship directly from me in an S5 box (as I now have a new S5 setup). Look forward to your tips!

Posted on: August 20, 2010.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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482 comments on “How to Travel 12 Countries with No Baggage Whatsoever

  1. That’s a really cool concept, but is it really all that comfortable to have all your gear strapped around you and extra undies and socks popping out of your pockets?

    I’m really interested to hear how this turns out…

    Hopefully it’s a liberating experience that we can all learn from.

    Thanks Tim and Rolf…

    Chris Dunn

    Like

  2. Have a most excellent adventure Rolf. You seeem to have it nailed – use the resources of your destination – most hotels have all the basic toiletries and they are small and if your clothes come in the teeny tiny dri-fit variety available so readily now it is easier to put socks in your pocket. How about a collapsible water bottle? It is hot near the equator!

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  3. Hey Tim and Rolf, great post!

    Rolf, I just finished reading Vagabonding, as I’m considering doing something similar this Winter now that I’ve freed up my time and location. I’m looking forward to following your journey around the world on your blog, so congrats man.

    Good luck, travel safe!

    -Steve

    Like

  4. One of the best tricks I’ve learned for light travel actually comes from my Search and Rescue training – test what you need, before you actually need it! I tend to pack what I think I need, and then go on a shorter trip somewhere. Items that I don’t use, don’t need, or that I can find better alternatives for get dumped, no question. Also, make sure everything you have is multipurpose (making it, therefore, a better alternative). For example, take a leatherman or something similar rather than a switchblade, cargo pants rather than jeans, a waterproof jacket w/ a hoodie rather than a jacket, poncho, and hat, or a pouch w/ room for documentation, phone, and money (one of the ones that tourists often wear around their necks) rather than carrying them all separate. Vests work wonders as well, but the more multipurpose things you carry, the less you will have to bring with you.

    You may not always be the most fashionable, but you definitely are traveling much lighter. I’m using a similar technique for moving back to college after summer break, and it’s done wonders so far.

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    • I’m an ultralight backpacker – hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail with less than 9lbs w/o food and water.

      This is a habit I got into early on – whenever I got back from a trip, I would go back over my packing list and note the things I didn’t use. A lot of people carry stuff they NEVER use but by the time the next trip comes around, we forget.

      I still think I would prefer an ultralight backpack to the vest (really, you’re just using wearable luggage) but it’s a cool idea. I’m sure the vest’s inside zip pockets would help in areas with pick-pockets.

      Safe travels!

      -Brad

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  5. QOD Response:

    Before I start packing, I’ll close my eyes, and imagine running through my daily routine and what I’ll be doing that day from the time I wake up to the time I’ll go to sleep. And I make note of everything I need along the way. For example, “I wake up, brush my teeth (pack toothbrush and toiletries), put on my clothes(pack a pair of jeans,shirts), going swimming(pack swim shorts) .. etc. I run through the entire day as best as I can estimate. And what I dont imagine needing, I dont pack. Then I do a final ‘phone, wallet/ID, cash’ check. Because really with those 3 things, you can handle most any situation you encounter, whether you forgot to pack something you needed or forgot to make arrangements of some sort.

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  6. Instead of a cotton t-shirt, bring a dri-fit shirt. You can easily wash it in any shower or sink, and they dry so quickly you dont really need a spare.

    I also normally wear short ankle socks, but if you wear bring knee high socks (only under pants for me) you can actually carry quite a lot of small light items, and more securely than in your pockets. Extra credit card, cash, passport, even stuff like a tooth brush or comb.

    If I am going to be swimming I will wear biking shorts underneath my regular shorts or pants. You can drop your shorts, go for a swim, the bike shorts will dry off a lot quicker and you can put your clothes back on over them once they are dry and be comfortable all day. Traditional bathing suits are much too bulky for this.

    If you have a nice camera, utilize it. I took high resolution pictures of all of the maps I would need, and my camera allowed me to zoom into the picture with incredible detail. You could even pop into an internet cafe to review them, instead of bringing a lot of maps. This is a simple trick to compact a lot of documentation.

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  7. When I travel I wear a pair of Mountain Hardware Hiking pants that have zip of legs. That way I have a pair of pants and shorts all in one.

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  8. I have to agree with the two statements:

    1) Ex officio underwear has been a lifesaver. They make other things too! Socks, shirts, convertible pants…in general, their whole line is geared toward minimalist travel. It is durable, easy to care for, comfortable and prevents the “stinkies” when you are traveling!

    2) iPhone with or without a keyboard…plus certain apps such as Kindle or iBooks app…the development and extension of smartphones (iPhone is the BEST!) has certainly been a game changer. I don’t think I have carried a laptop on a trip since the first iPhone was introduced. I will admit that lately, when I don’t have to be ABSOLUTELY minimalist, I am carrying an iPad….which is the same idea….light, thin, LONG BATTERY LIFE, and allows things like Kindle and iBooks and Zinio, magazines, newspapers, maps, weather, flight information, etc….(just like iPhone, but more capacity and longer battery life)…not quite pocket sized, but certainly easy to carry.

    These are the two things that have changed my travel the MOST and reduced my load the MOST. I can’t say that i have travelled without ANY bags….but I am certainly able to deal with a smaller bag and many less pounds as a result.

    Last couple of plugs – many companies make shoes that fold or pack flat for easy travel. Some of these also have removable insoles so that you can have more or less support depending if you are riding on the airplane (and don’t really need thick insoles) or walking a lot (in which case you can slip the insoles in). I won’t plug a specific brand here…many places have them.

    The PacSafe company makes a variety of small pouches all the way up to large bags that lock up tight, can be anchored to immovable objects (like a door or desk), and cannot be cut through by the usual tools….these are VERY useful for travel in situations that you won’t have a safe but want to secure that iPhone or iPad from theft. Highly recommended.

    Happy travels!

    Paul

    Like

  9. Wow, I’d love to do that. I still think I need to take my netbook. I think I can get down to mini carry on, But no less. I have a problem with the theory though. Having to explain to customs officials why you have no luggage, not even a carry on for international trips. I realize that “officially” they can’t detain you for being uber-efficient, but I know these guys….their gonna ask….and ask…and break you down until you admit to a variety of crimes just to get out of the inquisition room. It might be worth trying this a while to make a documentary. “How I saw 12 different country’s security system in 15 days”. :-)

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  10. Best light weight travel tip! Wear wool. Wool has natural antimicrobial agents that keep the stink to a minimum. Wool is the best fiber for temperature regulation, meaning that you need to remove and add less layers during exertion. Wool also absorbs moisture into the fiber, so if you are sweating it will not look like you are. It takes 30% of the materials weight in moister for you to feel wet vs 5% in cotton or synthetic. There are some great wool brands out there that have made stylish functional pieces that are great for in the city or in the woods.

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  11. I’ve found that, especially as a woman, the bag that fills up the fastest is the one filled with costmetics/bathroom items. To combat this, I:

    *Pack makeup that does double duty – like a lip/cheek/eye stain; tinted moisturizer with SPF.
    *Pack 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner that can also serve as body wash and shaving cream.
    *One razor with multiple cartridges usually takes up less space than multiple disposables – but razors are something you can easily buy at your destination. Same with feminine hygiene products, so don’t give in to the urge to pack extra “just in case”.
    *Pack a rubber band, elastic headband and bobby pins instead of tons of product and styling tools. If you’re spending the trip hiking, this is a no-brainer, but this also helps you lighten your load and feel comfortable with a night out, dinner in a restaurant, etc.

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  12. My tips

    1. If you’re looking for a good all-in-one soap/shampoo/facewash I recommend trying the baby aisle of your local (or destination’s) department store. I found a great ‘GAIA’ brand ‘Bath & Bodywash’ that is soap and sulphate free, with some orange oils for zest.

    2. Crocs don’t just make dorky plastic sandals — you can get the same lightweight sole with slip on loafer stylings up top. I love my pair of funky herringbone patterned loafers. Good for casual wear, and if going somewhere more ‘dressy’, people will just think you’re a hipster!

    3. Twitter. A great tool for making a local friend or two in each destination before you leave. Great for a quick answer on a local topic.

    Bonus: My sister bought an iPad before she went on an extensive european trip (she was going to lug along a full laptop) and it’s proven it’s worth. Incredible battery life, good size screen for maps etc . If you need a little more than a smart phone, it seems to be a reasonable alternative.

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  13. I enjoyed rolf’s book. I think you need to add another point that would perhaps be the biggest tip for many.

    Point 9:

    Choose who you travel with carefully. If your wife is one of those people that has to take the hair straighteners, then you’re going to have a problem traveling light!

    You will probably need to compromise, consider splitting up for a while or get them to read rolf’s book!

    I’m off to Thailand for my honeymoon is Dec and yes I have the slight issue of having someone else’s opinions who matter to me to consider!

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  14. In my travels I’ve noticed that having a handkerchief takes the place of a hat, towel, bag for small items you find (like stones at the beach), a way to mark and recognize baggage and muzzle the annoying person on a crowded bus (haven’t really tried this last one yet…). So one small piece of clothing, that can be worn on a head, neck, wrist or ankle, allows you to not carry as much on trips.

    Very good tips above! Will make my next trip backpacking Europe easier with less stuff!

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  15. We always make sure our long-sleeved t-shirts contain SPF or are sun shirts (some people call them rash guards). With a good hat on our heads and long pants, we don’t have to pack sunscreen or bug spray, nor do we have to apply any of those nasty chemicals to our bodies.

    Great post. It’s tough to travel this lightly with two small kids, but we sure try.

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  16. Man… With all of those awesome tips above, how are we suppose to compete!?

    I haven’t done a ton of “extended journey” traveling, but when I do travel I like to only bring my backpack. The best tip I have is to use a checklist to make sure you have the “essentials” (things that can’t be replaced when you get there). Stuff like medication, passports (yes, people forget them!), phone, etc.

    When your checklist pimpgame is tight, you feel extra chill when you pack and you’re on the way to the airport. Anything you bring on top of the checklist is just “icing on the cake”… Or weights holdin’ you down… :)

    The timing of your post is funny… Since (I might) have your attention. Is there a way you would be interested in raising $500,000 for a school (or three!) of your choice and me buying $5,000 worth of your new book when it’s released?

    If yes, click over to my webzone (when you have some free time) and scan the latest blog post (you’re more than welcome to skip the rambly video). :)

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