On January 3, 2013, myself and two friends set out for the adventure of our lives. We left from JFK on a one-way ticket to South America with intention to climb the continent’s highest peak, and volunteer in every country we passed through while finding our way back North on the winding dirt roads of the Pan-American.
In tow, we had duffles and backpacks containing our climbing gear, clothing, sleeping bags, a tent, and film production equipment. Basically, everything we thought we would need to scale a 23,000-foot mountain, trek through deserts, sleep on beaches, work in rainforest and jungles, swim in rivers, hitch-hike through cities, and document the whole thing.
It turned out, we brought too much. This is what I learned about expedition packing—and packing in general—by bringing too much and losing it all.
What we packed:
We started with a lot. And I mean, A LOT. At the time, it all seemed necessary. And some of it was, but some of it wasn’t. We’ll start with the mountaineering equipment, all of which we needed to successfully climb Aconcagua.
(1) Hilleberg SAIVO tent
(3) -20°F down sleeping bags (mine was the Marmot Col MemBrain)
(3) Therm A Rest Z-Lite sleeping pads
(3) Down jackets for the summit and nighttimes
(3) GoreTex climbing bibs/pants
(3) Insulated down mittens
(3) Insulated technical gloves
(3) 40 Below down camp booties
(3) Keen PCT hiking boots
(3) La Sportiva Baruntse insulated double boots
(3) Pairs of trekking poles
(3) Pairs of crampons
(1) 30 meter double dry rope
(2) MSR XGK stoves
(1) Set of pots
Misc. layers and liners: socks, compression briefs, long and short sleeve synthetic or wool wicking layers (LuLu Lemon, Patagonia, or Outdoor Research are my favorites), liner pants, Julbo glacier glasses, Spot GPS Messenger, Zinc sun lotion, food and other snacks from our sponsors, insulated thermos bottles and GSI Fairshare Mugs.
And then there was the filming gear:
Our Canon XA10 with additional lenses, a GoPro, a DSLR, a GorillaPod, a Glidetrack, one tripod and one monopod, an Azden shotgun mic, a Chromebook for transferring footage to drives and checking in on the world, and multiple hard drives and SD cards. All of that was needed to capture the journey and create the film we envisioned. And in the film production world, that a pretty sparse set up!
Where we overpacked was for the rest of the trip — the Real traveling.
When you think about being on the road for maybe half a year, traveling through various exotic destinations and climates, you tend to over-prepare. It’s especially hard to make cuts when your packing to live a lifestyle you can’t imagine.
What we shipped back:
There came a point, a little over a month into our journey, when we were just sick of lugging everything around. We knew we had way too much stuff and it was time to make a change. We had always planned to ship home the mountaineering gear after we finished the climb, but decided to send back much, much more.
Unnecessary layers, repetitive items, extra shirts, shoes, you name it. In our minimal packing efforts, we all brought too much. So in Arica, chile, we sent home our three Patagonia Black Hole duffles and a giant box stuffed with goods. We each kept a backpack.
What was stolen:
This hurt, but was crucial to our understanding of what really mattered. When losing a possession is not a decision (i.e. sending back or giving away), but a reality forced upon you, you learn the difference between what you need and what you thought you needed. Here’s what fell victim to the challenges of the road:
– Ryan’s GoPro camera and sunglasses
– Ethan’s DSLR camera and sunglasses
– My Gregory Packs Denali Pro 105L backpack and all of its contents
(yeah, over $1,000 worth of clothing and camping gear)… and later on my wallet… oh, and sunglasses too
Here’s Ethan Lee, of Between The Peaks, reflecting on having his camera stolen in Ecuador:
What was left:
When it came right down to it, I went through the last 2.5 months of the Between The Peaks expedition, straight through Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, with only the following:
(1) Convertible hiking pant
(1) Cargo short
(1) Rain jacket
(2) Pairs of ankle socks
(2) Pairs of compression briefs
(1) Pair of hiking boots
(1) Pair of flip flops
(1) Synthetic 20°F sleeping bag
The convertible pants and rain jacket I had to buy in Cusco, Peru. The toothbrush I bought on a bus leaving Tacna, Peru. The rest of these things were all that were left after my backpack was stolen. I happened to have this stuff, most already dirty, in my small duffle where I kept the main camera and my passport. I was lucky to hang onto at least that the whole time. And after hearing about the situation, a very nice Arica, Chile local gave me an old backpack to use as well.
I didn’t plan to limit myself like this. I never expected to go almost 3 months on 2 pairs of boxers. But unplanned and unfortunate circumstances led me to this, and I’m actually glad it did. This experience set me free from the shackles of overpacking and the dependence on material goods.
“Who says we have to change and wash a t-shirt after every individual use? If it’s not dirty, I’m gonna wear it.” – Andrew McMahon (I’m Ready by Jack’s Mannequin)
Because of going through that, and seeing how little I really needed to get by, I can now go anywhere in the world comfortably with a small backpack. My favorite, for simplicity sake, is the Patagonia Ascensionist pack. Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, talks about the BIT method of travel – meaning Buy It There. Rather than packing for every possible contingency, pack only the absolute bare minimum to get by and set aside some funds to buy the small things you may need along the way.
Having done it before, I’ll tell you that dragging a full size rolling suitcase through the train stations and streets of Switzerland, Italy, and France just pure and simple sucks. There have been weekend trips when I’ve packed the same duffle, and stuffed it to the brim, that got me through 5 months living in New Zealand. I’ve since learned. And I challenge you to limit yourself to a small-to-medium size backpack the next time you travel. No matter where.
Minimalist packing is absolutely an art. It takes practice. And it takes a definite and deliberate stretch of your comfort level. The blessing in hindsight of having most of my stuff stolen in Chile, with months still ahead in the journey, was learning to cope with very little. I hope you don’t have to go through the same experience to learn the art of packing light, but if it does happen, know that you’ll be okay wearing the same clothes for a while. Shit happens and you get dirty. It makes for a good story!
Go out, go far, and go light. Good luck!