Baggage Autopsy: A review of the stuff I carry

Posted: May 17, 2010    Categories: Travel

I’m back in the US sitting in a makeshift office on a folding table in my parent’s basement amongst my boxed up former possessions. It makes a good opportunity to review the what, why and how’s of all the crap I carry with me. It normally isn’t something worth talking about, but the last few weeks has called it into question.

Everyone says you should pack light. I get that. All things being equal, I agree with the advice. However, for me all things are not equal. I travel for months (if not years) at a time and have to carry all my possessions with me. I’m not on vacation with a house full of stuff waiting for me at home. Everything I need I have to carry with me.

The last five months I’ve been carrying around three bags. A large primary backpack for shoes, clothes and my tripod. A small backpack for my computer and a small shoulder bag for my camera and lenses. By the time I hit Spain, my main backpack was weighing in at the airport at over 20kg (44 pounds). My computer bag was insanely heavy as well. It was getting so ridiculous that my back would hurt whenever I had to carry my bags, even over short distances. I knew I would be returning back to the US soon, so I didn’t bother to do an autopsy on my luggage until I got home.

Here are the results….

Backpacking Without A Backpack?

Backpackers use a backpack. It sort almost goes without saying. In talking to people and reading discussions on the subject, the only benefit I can see to using a backpack over a suitcase is that you can’t roll a suitcase if you are walking on an unpaved road or on a trail.

In over three years of traveling, I can’t say I’ve spent a ton of time in places where I couldn’t have used a suitcase. In fact, the more I think about it, there are a lot of advantages to using a suitcase:

  • It is easier to access the content of a suitcase than it is the contents of a backpack.
  • Rolling something is easier than carrying something.
  • There are fewer straps and buckles to get caught and torn off when going through an airport.
  • I think you can pack more efficiently in a suitcase than you can in a bag.
  • You can keep clothes reasonably nice and folded in a suitcase. Forget trying to do that in a backpack. This is important if you want to bring a dinner jacket or something, which I am now considering doing.

Yes, if I want to go up in the mountains a suitcase wont cut it, but I still have my backpack available to me if I want to do that. I’m 95% certain I’m not going to be using a backpack for most of my trips for the rest of the year. The backpack will be saved for trips which will require hiking or trekking. I’m going to start using a suitcase for everything else.

Too Much Crap

Going through my bags I was amazed at the amount of crap I had accumulated. Most of it was in the form of brochures, books and other schwag given to me by companies and hotels I visited. Some of it I should have just thrown away. The rest I should have boxed up and shipped back to the US via the cheapest means possible.

Other stuff accumulates as well. I had not one, not two, but three electrical adaptors in my bag. That was overkill. My video camera is now broken but I kept carrying it around with all its associated cables and accessories. I have stuff in a first aid kit I haven’t used in three years. It was a good idea in theory when I first packed it, but if I need ointments or pepto bismol I can just buy it wherever I happen to be.

I had a water bottle I’ve been carrying with me that I have never used. BAM…Gone.

My new rule is simple: if I don’t actually use something at least once every three months, there is no reason to carry it with me.

Computers, Cameras and Cords…Oh My!

If I wasn’t running this website, the amount of stuff I’d have to carry would be significantly less. This is what separates me from the normal traveler. Electronics and accessories easily constitute the majority of what I carry by weight. The problem is, I don’t have a lot of room to eliminate gear if I want to keep doing what I do at the level I do. Here is a list of the major technology items I carry with me:

  • 15″ Apple MacBook Pro with power cord and power brick. This is essential for photo editing and managing my blog. A smaller laptop just wouldn’t cut it for photos and video.
  • A small bluetooth mouse. Not essential, but it is small and lightweight and makes working so much easier than using the trackpad on my laptop.
  • Three external USB 300gb hard drives. These are essential as they are my primary backup for photos when I travel. If I should lose my photos, I’d be screwed. Online storage for RAW files isn’t an option as you can’t upload multiple gigabytes of data on a daily basis from most hotels.
  • Energizer 15 Minute AA and AAA Battery Charger. Total waste of space. It didn’t work with voltages outside North America. I have since purchased a small battery charger that works on any voltage and doesn’t have a huge, heavy power brick.
  • 6 port Monster Cable Outlets-To-Go. Not essential, but almost. It is small and lightweight the benefit of having it is worth the cost of carrying it.
  • Sanyo Xacti 1000 HD video camera. Somewhere along the line this was broken. I no longer am carrying this or any of the cables for it. One thing that sucked about this is that you had to put the camera in a dock to charge it and get photos off of it.
  • iPod Touch and iPhone. Yes, I carry both with me. The iPod Touch is an old one with a cracked screen. It still works, it is just that the screen is ugly. I carry it with me because it is lightweight and helps in a pinch. The iPhone is mainly in my pocket and I don’t count towards my baggage weight.
  • Nikon D200 with 18-200mm, 12-24mm and 50mm lenses. This is heavy and constitues the majority of the weight of my camera bag. I’m planning (and have been for a year now) to upgrade my camera, but that shouldn’t increase the weight of my gear unless I carry my D200 with me, which I very well might do. I consider the camera and lenses to be essential for what I do and am even considering getting more lenses.
  • Manfroto carbon fiber tripod and ball head. I pack this in my main backpack and it is by far the heaviest single thing I carry. I also can’t see trying to do serious photography without it. My biggest question for moving from a backpack to a suitcase is what to do with the tripod.
  • Cords and other doodads. I carry a bunch of other small things like a piece of Cat-5 cable, shutter release cable for my camera, extra camera batteries, iPhone cable, etc. Most of this falls into the essential category and are things I use on a regular basis.

What to do with all this stuff is a constant question for me. I’m considering getting a Pelican Case for everything and then just have a camera bag I can pack and use when I’m running around for a day. That would condense my stuff down to one large suitcase and one carry-on Pelican Case for my electronics.

Other than moving to a suitcase, I’m not sure how I’ll solve my packing problems, especially with all my technology. I do know that my current situation isn’t really something I want to continue with, but I also can’t really cut back on certain items which make it possible to run my website the way I do on the road. Thankfully, I don’t have to make any big decisions for a few months, which is when I next plan to leave the US.

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