I've travelled to 42 countries so far and have done over half of those trips with just one bum bag. Sounds impossible? Here's how I did it.
I wasn't always fascinated with the idea of travelling light. It was just the natural evolution of multiple overseas trips with my mate, Matt. We started back in 2006, with an impromptu trip to China and Tibet. With little notice and less real thought, I used the 70L standard backpack which I always considered to be the natural accoutrement for any decent backpacker. Half way through the trip however, I realised that the thing was only really about half full at any one time. Sure, I could (and did) fill it with a bunch of random crap that I picked up along the way, but it got me and Matt thinking. Surely there had to be a better way?
Next trip we went on was to India, and this time we decided to egg each other on and see how light we could go. I bought a Camelbak Mayhem (11L) which was light and had the added advantage of in-built water storage. I had the idea of freezing the pack overnight (where possible), leading to a nice cool back and cold fresh water, as we visited the mountainous region of Kashmir and the lush lowlands of Mysore. The benefits of travelling light were immediately obvious. With nothing to check in, taking impulsive flights was easy, beating the exit queue at the airport was awesome and looking after our own property was a walk in the park. But we wanted to push the limits further.
We used similar gear on our trip to Iran. Cramming into a taxi to a random snow field with one treacherous ski lift was made all the easier by the lack of luggage. Overall, it wasn't bad per se, but we felt once again we could do better. With a bit of brainstorming, we realised that we could rationalise what little we had taken with us up until this point. OK, I'm going to admit this now — it's probably a lot easier doing this as males. But if you're prepared to cut a few corners it's entirely possible to travel around the world with just a bum bag.
Here are the rules: you can only bring what you can fit into a bum bag. We tend to travel for 2-3 weeks at a time, so this pretty much has to last us the entire time. Plus, we never know exactly where we are going to end up, so we have to be prepared for (almost) any eventuality. So how is this possible? Let me break it down for you:
The humble bum bag
Bum bag picture from Shutterstock
I use a nondescript no-name brand, but it's totally up to you. I like having some flexible straps on the front — this means I can put a shirt or something else there and not take up extra room inside. You can also store a water bottle in it, although it can get a little awkward.
Downsize your toiletries
I tend to take a little bottle of liquid soap which doubles as body wash and shaving cream. Apart from that, travel toothbrush (with a protective lid), mini toothpaste, dental floss, deodorant stick and a disposable razor should do it. Take a small waterproof bag to store it all in. These things always come in handy...
Sandals with socks. Yes, with socks.
We both use Keen Kanyon waterproof sandals with thick hiking socks. Yeah, I know it can be a faux pas to have your socks showing but there is some logic to this. The socks buffer against the sweat during the day and should be removed and washed (see below). You leave the socks off when going into showers or other wet areas. If you want to make your sandals look more like shoes, choose matching dark socks and sandals and you’ll just about pass muster most places.
Pile on the layers
There are a few options here, but the consensus we reached here is layers. We found that it was best to take a long-sleeve shirt and a t-shirt. Wear both during the day, preserving the long-sleeve from the direct brunt of your sweat. At night, take the t-shirt off and wash. If you need to go out straight-away, you can wear the long-sleeve by itself. For both options, a purpose-made travel shirt can work, but I personally found the material somewhat irritating.
For leg protection, we use full length travel pants that can be zipped off at the knees. These need to be quick-dry and you can choose insect repellent ones if you deem it appropriate for your adventure. The extra bits can be stowed in your ever-present bum bag if you feel the need to wear ‘shorts’ for the occasion.
We decided on two. One to wear, one to wash and store. Quick-dry can be handy but it’s not a necessity. The trick with the clothes is washing as often as possible. We would use any basin and soap to hand wash our clothes. You may need to sleep in your undies while everything dries, but it’s worth it the next day. For faster drying, you can drape them over any handy heat source and remember that a/c takes the moisture out of the air. Just sayin’.
Hat (preferably foldable) and sunnies as required.
Smartphone for all the wonderful things they provide (travel guides, internet, camera etc). You can also fit a USB charger, earphones and a small waterproof bag comfortably in the bum bag.
I keep all my travel documents backed-up on Dropbox for easy access in a pinch. So apart from your travel documents and money, you are good to go. Keep those in a travel pouch and you should be fine.
This formula has worked for a mad three-week-rush through the highlights of South America and a sojourn through Mali and to Timbuktu and back (literally). We were able to take on Egypt during the riots and even the wilds of Papua New Guinea.
There are just so many advantages to having all your belongings with you at all times. You become flexible in your choices and prone to a spontaneity that would put Jim Carrey to shame. You just need to improvise! For example, when we wanted to snorkel off the coast at East Cape, we simply borrowed a dodgy mask off a local and got on with it.
Don’t be too surprised if you end up having strange encounters where fellow travellers not only insist that you are pulling their collective legs, but also spend extensive amounts of time furtively looking for your absent suitcases. When they finally realise you are serious when you say you don’t have any, the sense of envy emanating from them is powerful. Second only to your B.O., but that’s another story.