The Art of Travelling Light

Chaka Salt Lake, Qinghai © Jo James

Chaka Salt Lake, Qinghai © Jo James

Luggage is a fact of life. Whether you’re going to a friend’s house for the weekend or on a six-month long expedition across the steppes of Central Asia, you’ll need to take something with you. Then the question becomes how much or how little to bring. To pack books or a bottle of whisky (or both)? How many pairs of underpants to take? What do you really need with you?

I’m heading off on a long trip to north-west China next month (more about this soon), and have been giving some thought to the question of what to take. Books? Yes. Whisky? No. Underpants? Definitely. When I was travelling frequently as a tour guide I slowly finessed my packing skills, so that I now travel kind-of-lightly. (Only after a few disasters though – rainy-season rainforest trekking in flip-flops and a week of below zero temperatures without a coat are the standout memories.) Now seems the time to figure out how to do it properly…

Travelling light has an undeniable appeal. Turning up in a destination with a single, small bag, serene and relaxed, is infinitely preferable to hauling an overloaded wheelie case over cobbles or staggering around beneath an 80-litre backpack. It’s also the more romantic way to travel – wandering across the globe like Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example, who set off in 1933 for a year-long walk across Europe with a few clothes, some letters of introduction, Horace’s Odes and the Oxford Book of English Verse.

Dangerous curves, near Golmud, Qinghai © Jo James

Dangerous curves, near Golmud, Qinghai © Jo James

The downside of travelling light is that what you gain in mobility, you lose in comfort and style. Recently, I was reading about Bruce Chatwin, the famous English writer. Mr Chatwin apparently pretended to travel light – with a leather rucksack and a Moleskine notebook – but was in reality followed by a train of luggage that included “ninety pounds of books, a typewriter, champagne, grey suits, boots and muesli for breakfast.”

Historically, travelling light was the preserve of pilgrims and gypsies. Explorers seldom knew how long their journey would take or what would be available along the way, a problem solved by taking along everything they might need. I love the story of the French Mekong Expedition, which set off from Saigon in 1866 with – among other things – 700 litres of wine and 300 litres of brandy. They valiantly struggled as far as Luang Prabang having averaged just four kilometres a day over the 1,500 kilometre journey, before jettisoning almost everything, and limiting the party to one bag per person for the remaining year of the expedition.

Without porters and mule trains, and without worrying too much about travelling in style, I think I ought to be able to get away with a medium-sized backpack for eight weeks. I’ll just have to get my books and muesli sent on ahead…

P.S. Part 2 – the practical bit – coming next.

P.P.S. Soundtrack for today’s post: Billie Holliday, Trav’lin’ Light

2 responses to “The Art of Travelling Light

  1. Agree with you that travel light is the best but it is as well a luxury… Instead of books and travel guide, buy an ebook reader, instead of heavy 100% cotton, buy some more technical clothes (Merino wool) as an example, which are light, keep you as warm as 5 standards layers would do. We travelling for one year and we have a 70 litres backpack filled up with clothes for different seasons, technical clothes taking less room and less weight, etc.. It would be interesting to have the testimonial of someone travelling for such a long time with a very small backpack.

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