What You Take Is What You Need

Creative Commons: Mat Honan

Creative Commons: Mat Honan

I’ve had several people write to me over the last few years, having heard from friends or relatives about the trip we made. Most of them want to know how to prepare for a trip like ours was. (Ironically, I am most interested in how one re-enters life after a trip like ours, but I digress.) What did we take? What kind of backpack did we carry? How did we choose what would stay home in storage and what would go?

There is a packing cliché – lay out everything you think you need and then half it. Spread that reduced amount out on the bed, and then half it again. That’s what you take.

I can tell you what we took, but we took more than we needed. What do you need to take? What do you want to take? What you end up taking tells you a lot about yourself. What you end up taking is really, truly, all that you need. In a life encumbered as our lives are today by too much stuff, it might seem nonsensical to suggest that you need merely a backpack full of items to be happy. But I do, in fact, assert that.

What we took:


  • 1 water-proof jacket with a removable liner
  • A hat and a pair of gloves
  • 2 pairs of lightweight pants
  • 1 wallet that attaches to a belt-loop and can be tucked inside your pants/shorts, for your passport, credit cards, and money.
  • 3 t-shirts
  • 2 long-sleeved shirts
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 1 skirt or dress
  • 3 sets of underwear
  • 3 sets of socks
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • 1 pair of hiking boots
  • 1 Towel: 1 Washcloth


  • 1 mosquito net
  • 1 sleeping bag 


  • 1 pump (non electric) water pump
  • 1 clothesline and clips
  • bungie cords in many lengths
  • small tool kit (scissors, screwdrivers, etc.)
  • first aid kit

Books & Recreation

  • Lonely Planet guides
  • music and ear phones
  • small journal for taking notes/keeping track of numbers
  • a book for pleasure reading – to be traded with others along the way

This weighed roughly 60 lbs, which was waaaaaay too heavy.

What would I have done differently?

  • 1 rain proof jacket with a removable liner – essential.
  • Hats, gloves – not really essential. If you are going to be somewhere that cold, buy these cold-weather items there, and then give them to another traveler as you move on.
  • 2 pairs of lightweight pants – 1 pair. Alternate with shorts.
  • 1 wallet that attaches to a belt-loop and can be tucked inside your pants/shorts, for your passport, credit cards, and money. – essential
  • 3 t-shirts – 2 t-shirts max
  • 2 long sleeved shirts – 1 long sleeved shirt, layer with short sleeved if you need warmth.
  • 2 pairs of shorts – 1 pair, alternate with light pants
  • 1 skirt or dress – not needed at all. Buy something (or borrow it) if you get a dinner invitation to the American consulate or something.
  • 3 sets of underwear – essential
  • 3 sets of socks – essential
  • long johns – essential
  • 1 pair of sandals – essential
  • 1 pair of heavy boots – make them comfortable and as light as possible.
  • 1 mosquito net – essential
  • 1 sleeping bag – helpful but not essential, and a big weight. Mine got stolen in Tibet and I didn’t really miss it after that.
  • Dop Kit – with toothbrush, brush, and other sundries – essential
  • Towel:washcloth – essential, but make them small. There are now towels and washcloths in a lightweight, quick-to-dry material (like the Sham-Wows on TV) that you can buy at REI and other outdoor stores.
  • 1 pump (non electric) water pump – doesn’t seem essential, but this got us through a rough part of India. I would take it again.
  • 1 clothesline and clips – essential
  • bungie cords – essential
  • small tool kit (scissors, screwdrivers, matches, pens, Sharpies, etc.) – essential
  • zip lock bags galore – essential
  • Lonely Planet guides – take 1 (only) for the country you will be in first. You will always be able to find all the others in any big city where there are other backpackers.
  • first aid kit – see this post.
  • music and ear phones – not essential, but nice to have
  • small journal for taking notes/keeping track of numbers – essential. You will regret not having this.
  • books for pleasure reading – take one…and no more. Do not weigh yourself down. You will be able to trade books or give them away almost everywhere you go in your travels.
At our lightest with our cold weather gear in Lhasa.

At our lightest with our cold weather gear in Lhasa.

That might reduce the weight down to about 40 lbs, which seems right. I’ve known some travelers to have eschewed all clothing but two outfits (one being worn, one to be in the process of laundering), a toothbrush, a book, and perhaps a clothes line in a small backpack. You can get down to that level, especially in warmer countries like India and SE Asia, and that is certainly makes life easier.

When packing, you must consider that your backpack is a microcosm of your life, and look deeply and sharply at what you can and cannot live without. I could live without pajamas (I slept in my clothes or nude), but couldn’t live without Q-tips. (No, really…) I read a lot, and needed a book (or three) with me, but I didn’t need a ton of music or art supplies. I easily twist my ankles, so I needed good boots. Others might get along just fine with light shoes. Clothing, which we tend to have in so much abundance and consider to be of primary importance, needs to be radically pared down. I actually researched what Colonial Americans had in their wardrobes, and thought long and deep about anything I thought I needed over that. Their needs were the bare essentials. I would need to take only those same essentials. Maybe even less. And the tools must be basic as well: matches, scissors, Sharpies, a clothesline…

You pare down the expectation of needs to the basics of everyday. Clothing, feeding, sheltering, and washing yourself. Those basic needs are what is precisely so difficult about this exercise of preparing a backpack. We’ve forgotten our essential needs. We’ve forgotten how to provide for them without fancy homes, and closets full of clothes, a washing machine, and a garage filled with tools. We’ve forgotten to be essential, and that really – for most of the time – your needs are very basic. Our consumer culture has convinced us that we need so much, but in reality we need so little. A backpack demands that we accept that as truth, and rethink how to prepare for life.

I would like to say that I now live a minimalist lifestyle, with few possessions and very little baggage. No, that would be a lie. I live in a house filled with travel momentos and books (have I said I’m a reader?), children’s toys, cooking pots, antiques, and baskets. But I have to say that I have a tenuous relationship to the things I own, ready to give them away. I lend and give my books away freely to others that need or want them. I acquire clothing at Goodwill, and give it back when it goes unused. We give and take in our community, within our circle of friends. Furniture moves, clothing moves, books move… and I feel very little attachment to the things that make a home here in this house alongside the people, to whom I feel a strong attachment. Traveling has given me that perspective; I can do this thing called life without all the stuff. If, for some reason, I wake tomorrow and it is all blown away in a hurricane, I know I can move forward without the things. Just give me a backpack, and about 40 lbs of essentials, and I might just be able to make a life anew. I’ve done it before.

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  • Chris Dietrich

    I’d like to add that a sleep sack is a very handy piece of gear that can
    often replace a sleeping bag. Take a queen size sheet, fold it once and
    sew up the foot end and half way up the open side. For the head area,
    if you can create a pocket underneath the head area it can serve as a
    built-in pillow case for provided pillows of unknown origin. The sleep
    sack puts a reliable (and washable) layer between you and the much-used
    bedding of god knows what kind of humanity (or wildlife) that came
    before you. Invaluable for hosteling as well

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1019283731 Adrian Hoppel on Facebook

    I really like the way you relate the backpack to our daily lives and “needs”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=679116579 Marie Goodwin on Facebook

    Thanks Adrian Hoppel 🙂

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1383090653 Donna N. Cusano on Facebook

    Very good read, Marie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=679116579 Marie Goodwin on Facebook

    Thanks Donna…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1032211924 Mia Painter on Facebook

    Love it, Marie! I too agree that coming back to the “real world” after traveling is hard, maybe as hard as preparing to travel, and often overlooked!