The Materialism of Minimalist Travel

I had a realization at 11pm today that, if I wanted to order something on Amazon Prime and have it arrive before I fly out, I would have to order it in the next hour. Nothing quite like a startling two-day buffer to make something a reality.

Next Tuesday, I leave Atlanta- but not straight for Christmas Island. I’ll be in Houston from Tuesday to Saturday for Grace Hopper, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. And then Singapore, and then Jakarta (one of two cities that flies into Christmas Island), and then, finally, Christmas Island.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been caught up with a particular, notably materialistic strain of travel prep frenzy. I think it was the decision to carry just a single, hulking backpack as a carry-on instead of a suitcase that drove my obsession with travel gadgets, packing cubes, and YouTuber-curated lists of what clothes to bring for a 3-month trip.

My reasons are sensible (I think). Having two primary destinations (Christmas Island and Melbourne, one of which is only accessible by aforementioned Jakarta flight) means just a lot of flying, both domestically and internationally, with varying baggage policies and prices (counting transfers, between the time I leave Atlanta and come back I’ll have taken 16 flights??? see pic below). If carrying all my stuff in a backpack that (even unreliably) passes as a carry-on saves me money and stress from transferring airlines, all the better. Even more, I like the idea of not being stranded after arriving at an airport (or after checking out of a hostel and trying to kill a few hours before my flight) by a big wheeled suitcase that’s hard to drag around a city. Maybe my back will say otherwise in a few weeks, but I like the idea of being mobile, everything I need off the ground and on my shoulders.

Screen Shot 2018-09-13 at 9.11.45 PM
Map of my Airbnb saved destinations- a visual explanation of why so many flights?

But even more than the practicality, I kind of just like the idea of not needing a lot of things. It feels close to the pursuit of solitude that underlies my motivations for this trip- to live in many different places with one bag on my shoulders and nothing else feels like a way of measuring myself.

But luckily, it’s one a lot of people have done before.

I feel almost guilty for diving into the backpacking-adventure-dream-self so fully. What my journey to need less stuff has looked like is, ironically but predictably, buying a lot more stuff. First, a backpack. And then travel gear; everything from packing cubes (a purported must-have) to a filtering water bottle with a built-in compass that comes with a free paracord-bracelet-doubling-as-a-fire-starter-and-whistle (ok I got it to filter questionable tap water, tbd if this was a good idea).

Me and my new bag at the Atlanta airport, headed for Michigan.

And while I’m admittedly, definitely enjoying the shopping part of this minimalism journey, there’s also something refreshing about being more intentional with my purchasing decisions. For one thing, everything I get has to be worth its weight. Last weekend I visited my dad in Michigan and decided to use my backpack as luggage on a sort of trial run. Despite it only containing 2 days’ worth of clothes (although truthfully, my overpacking made it more like 5), all it took was a broken airport train (the plane train that ATLiens know and love) and an ensuing long walk for me to realize that that bag is not light. Accordingly, I’ve given myself permission to be a bit more extravagant than usual in buying things that I think are multi-functional, compact, and high-quality.

So I got the packing cubes. I got the water bottle. I got a quick-drying, lightweight beach towel that’s reportedly also sand-proof (will let you know how it works!). I got some compact (and marine-friendly!) sports stick sunscreen. I had the brilliant idea that a nice one-piece swimsuit can be worn with pants as a cute top, and I got a suit.

The famed sand-proof towel

And it does feel excessive- do I really need that fire-starter-paracord-bracelet? (To be fair it came with the water bottle and I didn’t buy it separately so maybe this isn’t a good example.) But it also feels like I’m giving myself permission to try something out, recognizing that there are literal monetary costs. And that feels good.

I had a moment while packing earlier that made me realize that maybe some things about my mindset toward stuff is already different. At the end of the school year, I shipped home a duffel bag of clothes, designating them as things I might need for my trip but wouldn’t need during the summer. I opened the bag earlier today, looking through the items that just 3 months ago I shipped cross-country ($$$) to make sure I had for my travels.

There were rain boots. A slightly ill-fitting flannel shirt. A very ill-fitting button-up from Goodwill that aspires to be outerwear, but that I’ve rarely worn as such. A second pair of elephant pants. A garish swimsuit I rarely wore at school but thought I’d definitely rock on my trip.

Literally none of these things are going to make the cut. Rain boots (despite this pair being pretty light and foldable) are unnecessary when I have waterproof sandals, especially in hot climates. Neither of the shirts fit, and they’re both bulky cotton. I already have my main pair of elephant pants. The suit doesn’t need explanation.

It feels kind of good to so justifiably reject these items that just a few months ago I thought were worth shipping to a different coast just so I would have them for my travels. Although I realize now that I could’ve saved myself some shipping money, I think the realization is still valuable. Being forced to have a higher bar for quality when it comes to the things that you use every day is a nice motivator, and I’m glad to see that my standards have already changed, if only enough to reject some already pretty mediocre items.

I guess we just have to see how well that filtering water bottle works out.



8 thoughts on “The Materialism of Minimalist Travel

  1. Natalie

    so true. I feel that even just leaving seattle for philadelphia… And ah I’m so excited for you and this trip and looking forward to keeping up with your travels!! 🙂


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