Thursday, December 9, 2010

A bag and a plan : a few tips on travelling

Since i've been doing my trips, i've had quite a few people asking me for tips on how to pack and how to travel. I thought it'd be a good idea to post something to share with everyone.
Travel is an art that could never be described in a one-fits-all guide to it. Furthermore, my experience can never compete with those of real adventurers and explorers so, had i decided to do so, i would be incapable of covering all of the finer points.
Therefore, the aim of this article is to provide general yet straight-to-the-point tips and pointers on "adventurous" travelling. I won't write about casual tourism stuff (though some principles still apply) as it is a completely different mindset which would require a separate article.

I hope you'll find this of use, here we go.


What not to pack:
Don't pack anything you won't use... It may sound obvious, but think about it: the tent you're bringing, does it need that many pegs ? Your emergency pouch, do you need that many bandages ? Do you know the precise use of every object in the pouch ? Why so many pairs of socks, are you afraid there's no socks on the other side of the world ? Back to the tent, will you actually really need a tent ?
Sometimes we focus so much on the objects that we forget the containers, do you actually need a pouch for your emergency kit ? Why not just pack that stuff in a light (yet waterproof) plastic bag ?
Also, are you travelling alone ? No ? Then why not share that toothpaste with the others instead of everyone all carrying the same item ?
A lot of people carry liquid containers around, but i think ordinary water bottles are ideal: transparent, feather-light, disposable, cheap, and you can get them absolutely anywhere in various sizes.

Before packing anything, ask yourself how often (if at all) you'll be using that object, and therefore if it's necessary for you to pack it. Over the years, as my travel experience grew, my bag shrunk both in size and in weight. I've cut off (such as the handle of my toothbrush) or got rid (such as my stove and tent) of all the unnecessary things that used to fill up my bag for no reason.

Basically, you can be as minimalistic as you want to be. I've read the account of 2 Frenchmen who had crossed the Himalayas from one end to the other, entirely on foot over a period of 6 months. They carried all their possessions in nothing more than tiny backpacks, and they went so far in their obsession for minimalism that they had even stripped down their pens only to keep the ink cartridge and the point.
In general, the lighter you are, the happier you'll be, and the more mobility you'll have. Finding the right balance may take a bit of time, especially as it all depends on where you're going, at what season, for how long, and how much comfort you need to have.
If in doubt, keep the object that has more than one use and drop the one that's limited to only one use.

What to pack:
Again, it depends, but there's a few items that are useful pretty much anywhere, anytime.

_I'd recommend a Swiss Army knife with at least a blade (obviously), scissors, a can-opener and a flat screw-driver (the rest depends on your personal tastes and needs). Mine is red, which is easier to spot if i drop it somewhere.
_A good quality head-torch is VERY handy, be sure to pack it where you can access it easily, how paradoxical would it be to have to go through all your stuff in the dark looking for your torch.
_A small dry-bag can be useful so you're sure that some important items (passport, camera) will stay dry even if your bag was to fall in a river. Dry-bags can also be used as pillows, they make good emergency water containers or even improvised showers (if they're fitted with an air release valve). Clip on a strap and you have a handy little secondary bag for short excursions.
_A nice thick roll mat is a wise choice too, it becomes essential if you're going to sleep on the ground (i learned the hard way in Tibet) as it's very cold, even in warm weather. My roll mat felt like it was taking up too much space, so i cut a third of it off and never regretted.

Travel tips

Before the trip:
Some people like to prepare every single detail of their trip, others (such as me) like to improvise a lot and go with the flow. In every case, a minimum of research is required.
Know the visa procedures, some countries allow for land-boarder crossing, others don't or only in certain conditions. Some crossing points might be closed at certain times of the year (winter time or in the case of wars).
Don't forget to check what electricity plugs you'll find and if you'll need a converter (unless you're not carrying any electronic equipment, obviously).
I know it's tempting and reassuring to buy new cool stuff before a big trip, but try not to look too modern like a tourist, the less you draw attention, the better off you'll be, even more so if like me you like to explore "dodgy" places from time to time.
So avoid the eye-catching heavy-duty camera bag, or even worse, walking around all day with your high-tech camera around your neck. You'll get more enjoyable, natural and memorable contacts with the locals and you won't have the word "target" flashing on your forehead. Keep that in mind when you'll decide what to pack and what to pack it in.

Travelling can seem stressful, even more so before you're actually out there, it's sometimes a big step towards the unknown which may lead us to pack too much or inappropriately. Just remember to stay simple, you're going to some other country, not some other planet ! Whenever i start feeling anxious before a trip, i try to think of the similarities that all human beings share: we eat, we sleep, we laugh, we cry...
There's a universal basis that we can all relate to, we all seek warmth when we're cold, shelter when we're wet, food when we're hungry... This universal basis brings human beings together through a means of communication that transcends languages, lifestyles, beliefs. Back in China, after a cold rainy day of cycling along the Mekong river, i remember having a long "conversation" with 2 girls that didn't speak a word of English, in their house, as i was eating a bowl of noodles that they had cooked for me. Through only gestures, smiles and sounds we expressed so much that words became unnecessary.
Everything always works out eventually, just get out there and you'll find your marks sooner than you think.

One useful tip for you : Make a list of every single item you plan to take, so you know you won't forget anything, and you can use it as a guideline for future trips. It also makes it easier to see at a glance what you're packing, and therefore operate changes.
My list is divided in categories such as "sleeping gear", "medical", "clothing", etc.

During the trip:
I tend to travel with very few clothes, as they take up a lot of space. I wash them either in the shower with regular soap, or from time to time in a laundry-mat. I mainly use clothing that dries quickly (synthetic) for practical reasons.
Travelling with cheap clothing is a good idea, it means you can easily give or swap the stuff you won't need after a certain point (for example if you reach an area with different climate). Also, it'll mean you won't stand out too much in a crowd of often poorer people. I tend to buy part of my clothing on location, it's often cheaper and more convenient.

I have a couple hiding places for my money, though i tend to use ATMs so i don't have to carry a lot of cash on me. Be creative when it comes to hiding money, you can take some innocent-looking object and turn it into a cool stash. This came in handy for me when i lost my wallet in Turkey, i was glad i could count on my stashed cash. Never keep all your cash and documents in one unique place (whether on you or in your bag).

FAQ (Note: Once more, this is my style of travelling, which may or may not correspond to your own. Feel free to experiment and come up with your own way).

_ Do you use a tent ?

Whether when cycling in Tibet in winter, hitchhiking through Europe or riding my motorbike in the desert of Morocco, i've never found any use for a tent. There's plenty of abandoned houses / buildings / sheds / natural shelters, or even hospitable people around, and tents take time to pitch and pack which isn't ideal in rough conditions (wind / cold / storm). Last but certainly not least, they're heavy and take lots of room.
My alternative is the waterproof bivy bag, which acts as an improvised shelter as well as a second insulation layer after the sleeping bag.
The only case i would consider bringing a tent is if my trip was exclusively in a natural setting, far from any human life.

_ What about a travel stove ?
No need for that either, it's easy enough to get warm food everywhere, and if not, cold food does the trick. Having a lighter to start a fire though is quite a good idea, fires will heat your food and your body, and they have a strange friendly aura which is nice if you're on your own.

_Do you have an emergency kit and if yes, what's in it ?
I do have a tiny one. It's a transparent ziploc bag containing a little bottle of iodine (look it up, that stuff is an antiseptic and will purify nasty water as well. It's also extremely cheap), some paracetamol, some anti-inflammatory, and some antidiarrhoeal medication.
Also, i like to have some wound closing bandages, useful in case of open wounds.
No large quantities needed, keep it light and small, get rid of the boxes that you don't need.

_Do you carry a towel ?
Nope, i use a small but highly absorbing cloth. You can find travel towels that look very similar but are more expensive. If you want to travel really light, just dry yourself with a shirt, no towel needed.

_Anything in particular i should think of packing ?
I carry around some ID photos, for border crossings and other administrative needs which often require some. I also have a razor blade (not the full razor) just in case i need to lose the travel beard and look charming :)
I recommend a little mending kit like the ones you find in hotels, for quick repairs of torn garments.
You've probably thought of this already but a little notepad and a couple of pens come in handy, to write down thoughts, addresses, useful information, etc.

_I've never done a big trip on my own, i really want to but i don't know what to start with...

The beauty of travels is that you can make up your own adventure ! When i did my cycling trip across Asia, i initially couldn't decide where to go. I read about the Mekong river which has its source in Tibet and reaches the ocean in the South of Vietnam, and i thought it could be a cool adventure to follow it, with all the countries and changing landscapes that it could offer.
Just do some research about places, sometimes an article or a photo is all it takes to give you a plan. You might want to start with something small and then move on to bigger things once you're ready: my first cycling trip was 250km long, then i did 500km, then 1000, and finally the 5000 in Asia.

_I'd like to have some travel adventures but i don't have money or time to do it, any ideas ?
Yes ! You don't need either one to have great adventures. I've recently done a week-long trip to the Dolomites (see previous article) which was the best adventure i've had in a long time. It's not the cost, length or distance that makes a great adventure, you might have more fun / excitement / challenges over a weekend in your own country than you'll have over 3 months on the other side of the world.
I you want to make an adventure happen, it will.

I'm going to stop here for now, i realise this article is getting quite big and i've covered most of the important points, i think... I might add / modify things in the future, feel free to comment or ask stuff and i might adapt the article to it to make it as useful as possible to everyone.
I hope you've found it of some help, thanks for reading and happy travels !


Rachacuca said...

Salut, Thomas.

That's a great guide, man.
Very helpful for those traceurs looking forward to travelling to Lisses, for instance.

Thank you for share your thoughts.


émon said...

This is a great lot of info^^.
Maybe soon we'll be seeing a book from you in the local bookstore.

thanks for the post, found it very helpfull^^

ghost said...

grazie thomas,mi hai dato tante buone idee per alleggerire il mio zaino in visti del prossimo viaggio che sto per fare.master.

holy land tours said...

Yeah man, how about a book? This guide doesn't fall short in terms of writing or usefulness! Really a great list, would totally use this next time I'm travelling (soon, I hope!). :)

deyvidpi said...

Man that's great and so inspiring !

My room mates (Aurélien Bonhomme and Thomas Arnaudies that you may know, they are also traceurs) made me discover your blog and that's exactly the way I like to act: go far, with a minimum of material and see where you're lead by your feet :)

But one question: where the hell did you find enough money to buy a motorbike ? Are you working in Mc Donalds or so between two trips ?

Yokiko Karawaci Mangkubumi said...

Je veux savoir si vous aussi écrire un article dans un magazine ou un journal?

Thomas said...

Hello Yokiko,

No i've never written any articles for magazines or newspapers, but i have been interviewed by some.

Why do you ask ? Drop me an email if you like at Thomas (at)

Take care !

Yokiko Karawaci Mangkubumi said...

I just love all your writings. each of your writing is very interesting. if you write an article for a magazine or newspaper, I would like to know it.
I've seen your interview on youtube. can u tell me on what magazine or newspaper you've been interviewed?
I can't find a way how to drop you an email at
and i'm sorry for the late reply

Aaron said...

So... Nothing happened for eight months Thomas? A :)