Backpack Simplicity

Writing is my therapy when we’re traveling, helping me process what it is I think about my experience. I often don’t know what I think until I pull out a pen.

I wrote this when we just started our family’s extended round-the-world trip, about three weeks in (which became the setting for my memoir, At Home in the World). This is one I’ve re-read several times since returning back to normal life, as a reminder of one of my favorite things about vagabonding.

May I keep this perspective when we stay in one place, too.


We have now been traveling for three weeks. In some ways it seems like we left Texas last weekend, but according to my subjective analysis, I’m fairly certain we’ve been on the road for about three months. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, this year, but it’s going to whoosh by fast.

Right now I’m on a double-decker bus in Hong Kong, watching pedestrians and stoplights like a bird on a wire. Tomorrow, we head to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we’ll live for two months and relish in the routine of regular school and office hours, most meals served from a kitchen instead of a corner or cafe, and some semblance of bedtimes.

The world’s got a lot to teach me about living simply. So does the art of traveling.

We’re living out of backpacks this year, and that’s easily been one of my most enjoyable bits of this whole endeavor. A few tops and bottoms, a journal, my stuff for reading, writing, working, and showering, and I’m all set.

yangshuo streets

The kids haven’t complained one bit about backpack living (in fact, I don’t think the boys have even noticed that they’re rotating the same three shirts). To manage only the necessities has been an asset in helping us live more fully in the now—after meandering the streets of Beijing, playing with kids in the streets in Xi’an, or devouring the mountains and caves of Yangshuo—our days’ final ritual is to wash a few bits of laundry, hang them to dry, enter the land of Narnia via Kindle before kissing foreheads goodnight, then do a little cleanup before hitting the hay ourselves. (There’s not much to clean up, so it doesn’t take very long.)

yangshuo water

tate playing

I’ve already exchanged a few items from my original wardrobe, adjusting for the weather and lifestyle. But the total amount has been about the same.

We’re making the most of our surroundings to serve as our kids’ primary textbooks. The natural world and epic manmade art in its various forms have a lot to teach us.

We’re renting apartments and houses when we can, to make everyday, local living the ideal option.

golden week

I know we won’t be backpack living when we eventually return to our “normal” life. But I certainly hope to replicate the practices that embody universal truths, the facts that remain so even when we’re living still.

The old World War II slogan advised us to “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” It’s been my mantra this past month as well. We’re squeezing every last bit out of that toothpaste tube, I can already tell several of our t-shirts will have holes before the trip’s end, I’m shrugging my shoulders about my less than ideal sandal situation, and so far, we’re doing just fine without a car.

ice cream

None of this has really been that painful. I’m unearthing a strange peace about limited belongings. There is freedom in fewer choices.

yangshuo bridge

green tea

Right now, everything I need fits in a bag on my back. I hope to remember this freedom when I unpack it next summer.

The thing best keeping me company right now, aside from near-nightly card games like UNO and streaming TV shows when we’re in the land of decent Internet (Gilmore Girls!), is checking out books from my local library through my Kindle. What a time to be alive, right?

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