After a fantastic five and a half months of travel, spanning most of the Northern American continent, and the lower half of Central America, there are so many things I have thought about. How could I have packed differently? Could I have been more prepared? Did I over-prepare? Was there something in my approach that left me wanting? Did I really maximize my budget? Did I truly have the experience that I set out to originally?
The answer to so much of this, invariably, is that, you did not maximize your trip. Along the way, to be sure, there were indulgences. There were purchases made outside the realm of the necessary. There was time spent poorly. But, when you are traveling, are you in the business of Min-Maxxing every category? Some people are. Personally for me, this approach happens frequently, but I try to delineate from this course as quickly as possible once I realize that I am on it. For those that are unfamiliar, “min-maxxing” is a business and econ term that has been adopted into the language of video games, sports, poker, athletics, literally anything where you have a measurable and quantifiable gain to be had.
Min-Maxxing in relation to travel deals with many things; budget, timeline, what to pack, et cetera. Before I go into detail, I want to be sure that you understand that I am not (although arguably very much an OCD person) advocating for a rigid approach, I just believe that this outlook leaves you in a fantastic place to be very productive, aware, and active in your travels. Firstly: Budget. Budget is one of the main hurdles for most travelers, since most travelers aren’t on a shoestring (which requires no budget, only struggle) or gravy train (the other extreme, also requiring no budget).
Budgeting correctly can be the difference in connecting with your goals or missing them by a mile. You can cover more ground in a shorter period of time if you are willing to spend a bit more cash. Likewise, you can save a considerable amount of money if you are willing to be more patient, put in some work, and be thrifty. At 32 years old, one of the first things to go for me is booze. Booze and partying is a surefire way to spend money that you don’t need to. As I get older, the hangovers have only gotten worse, and that leaves me dealing with a double edged sword when drinking. Typically for me, the opportunity cost is too high to go raging (it happens from time to time) all the time. I already did that for my entire twenties. I guess iit just doesn’t appeal to me that much anymore. I would trade a night of drinking for a day hike almost 100% of the time. But, that’s me.
Piggybacking when you talk about budget is always the topic of timeline. Min-Maxxing applies here in regards to “how much can I see and do in the 14 days allotted to me?” I prefer a longer trip where I can explore opportunities that come unexpected, and take the time to really soak culture, language, and cultivate friendships. That being said, not everyone has 24 weeks a year to spend gallivanting around doing whatever they like. Some of the most active travelers I have met are the types that just crush trips. I met 2 dudes from Australia that were the last ones in bed every night, and the first people out surfing every day for 2 weeks straight. I’m not saying that I understand this freakish Aussie stamina, but I surely respect it. Again, because I prefer a much slower pace, I am not concerned if I simply study, relax, read and nap for three straight days (maybe get some exercise?), but that’s because I arrange for longer stays. If I had 2 weeks to see the entirety of a country, I would be moving fast too! 2 nights here, one night there, fly to these islands, charter a more expensive sailboat because it’s faster. Min-maxxing ties budget and timeline in a way that they are parallel on a sliding scale.
Packing is the final thing that has been on my mind. Literally the moment I got to the San Jose airport (I didn’t expect to be in Honduras just days before I flew home) I was already planning my return trip. I was running through the inventory of my pack (which, while tech heavy, was a pretty solid mix for a long trip). Min-maxxing may be what travel and adventure geeks get realllly into. How long can I travel with how little? How much can I physically fit in my pack? What things can I eliminate? What else can I take without too much weight, risk, or bulk?
You can spend days thinking about what you want to bring: but the real question to ask is “What type of trip is this going to be?” I brought a DSLR camera, a tripod, three lenses and a laptop with me to Central, America. I certainly had more tech than I needed – my pack was a literal jackpot had anyone absconded with it. But… I love photography. I could replace all of these things with an iPhone, and literally save half my pack’s weight and 30 liters of space. But does an iPhone really replace your actual camera? Of course not. Is your phone as powerful as your Macbook? Of course not. Are you risking your equipment getting stolen by bringing it with you everywhere? Absolutely.
Another angle of [packing] Min-Maxxing appears here: how little risk can I assume while attaining the highest amount of functionality possible? We are considering a motorcycle trip across Malaysia for the end of the Summer 2015. We have already agreed the trip is to be practically analog. That way, when we end up (potentially) getting arrested, mugged, robbed, etc., life goes on. If I could repack for my Fall Trip this year, I would have changed some of my list, there is no question: I would swap my tripod for a fishing pole in a heartbeat. I would probably leave my 50mm at home and take only a wide angle and a telephoto. But again, every time you shed one tool or another – you lose some of that versatility. People often overlook the most important question to ask yourself when it comes time to pack your bag for an extended trip: “what am I trying to accomplish here?” Your pack should literally be designed to be the particular brand of Swiss-Army knife tailored to what you personally need. How long are you gone? What type of travel are you doing? How safe are the places you want to visit? Do you need to travel light? What type of pack do you need? I really enjoyed having the things that I brought when we would stay extended periods of time, because I had access to a full camera rig and a laptop, everywhere.
The third element of Min-Maxxing in regards to packing, and I will tell you now is simply an absolute: you can immediately maximize your easiness of mind by minimizing the amount of shit you bring with you. A wise man once said “don’t take anything you would be heartbroken over losing” (and that includes your beautiful girlfriend, healthy bowel movements, your body’s ability to regulate it’s temperature, and the ability to keep food down). God forbid. Because my pack was worth probably close to 2,000 USD, I was worried when it wasn’t in sight on the bus. I needed a locker at every hostel. I was overly concerned. I took precautions, and although I broke the shit out of my iPhone and my laptop screen doesn’t look quite right now; I never got anything stolen. If you want to be more relaxed – travel with less. Again, it’s a matter of what you are trying to do on your trip. I managed to capture some of the nest photos of my amateur career by bringing the equipment and using it frequently. But it never would have surprised me to get off the bus one day and have everything of value fleeced out from under me while my pack was out of sight.
Again, I stress that I am not in the business of taking travel too seriously. Unless you are preparing for an ascent of the technical side of K2, hitchhiking through Caracas, or walking from Egypt to London - you probably don’t have to be that serious about these topics – but I assure you, if you put some thought into these things, it will pay dividends later when your pack is light, yet you are as comfortable as can be (mind and body).
Here’s a list of some of the things that I absolutely never leave at home:
Combo Lock or Pad Lock for your pack and locker – weighs nothing, takes up very little space – could make a real difference in your trip.
A good headlamp (reading in the dorm, camping, cooking, early wake-ups, everything!) I have a 120 lumen Black Diamond that I would absolutely recommend.
First Aid Kit – nothing too big – but when you get that nasty blister, burn or tweak a finger surfing, youll be happy to have some tools – take out the useless stuff and add another small roll of medical tape – it’s literally good for everything.
Needle and thread – takes up literally zero space or weight – fixes shit.
Plastic Bags – a couple 1-2 gallon Ziploc and a full size trash bag – a hundred uses, take up little space and no weight.
A set of back-up batteries (AAA for your lamp or whatever) as if you are remote or in an undeveloped country, they are nasty expensive.
A good knife (cooking, fixing shit, cleaning fish, the illusion of self-defense)
All seven of these items could fit into 1-2 liter of space in your pack, and could make your life or someone else’s life that much better (remember, when you travel with so many different people, the things you can trade and share become SO essential! You can make someone’s day just having a needle and thread or moleskin for their hurt footsies). I am going to put together a detailed list of what I am taking with me in March for Leg 3 of Central as we merge into South America, and I will have that up soon. Happy New Year everyone! What's next?
Photo from Cooper Landing, AK, United States, 2014.