Traveling light; Or, how to see the world in 17Kg

I’ve always been the type of traveler typically packed at the last minute, and I invariably end up packing much more than I needed to. But a trip I took recently had some pretty stringent restrictions on luggage weight. I was allowed one soft-sided luggage bag and one carry on bag. The two bags in combination had to weigh less 15 kilos (around 33 lbs). Because I was flying internationally and had 3 flights to my final destination, I also decided I wanted to be able to carry my luggage on-board with me. Both of these constraints forced me to think through my packing strategy very carefully. I wanted to share some of my lessons learned from this exercise in the hopes that it may help others who are trying to travel light.

The first decision I made was to plan out my packing a couple weeks in advance. This gave me plenty of time to consider what I did and didn’t need, to find out the climate and average temperatures for the areas I visited. I used an application called Wunderlist to help me organize my list and to check that I’d gotten everything at the end.

The second decision I made was somewhat related to the first: since I couldn’t take everything I wanted, I needed to decide what items were “must have” and which ones were “nice to have.” I’m a very serious amateur photographer, and so my first concern was making sure I took the right camera gear with me. Clothes were a secondary choice. I traveled with two camera bodies, a Nikon D610 DSLR and a Panasonic Lumix GX1 mirrorless camera as a backup. I had short and long lenses for each camera so I could do everything from landscapes to close-in photos of birds and wildlife. In the future I plan on purchasing a Panasonic Lumix GX8 mirrorless camera and will take it along with the GX1 when weight and size are an issue. As an added bonus I will be able to share lenses between the GX1 and GX8 which means a lighter equipment loadout. I thought about taking my computer to do editing in the field but ultimately decided not to. Instead, I used an Apple device to copy photos from my cameras to my iPad. Some cameras now come with wi-fi capability, and photographers who use one of those cameras can directly upload photos to a website or storage archive.

The third choice I made was that I didn’t need a new set of clothes for each day. These days, most hotels and lodges will do your laundry for a fee. For the places that don’t have facilities, a bathtub or a sink should suffice for a quick clothes wash. I decided that this was a better option than packing clothes for each day, which would have meant a lot heavier luggage. I also carried a small bottle filled with HE (High Efficiency) laundry detergent. Most major brands of laundry soap sell a concentrated HE formula, and it usually only took a few drops to wash a couple of shirts or a pair of pants in the sink.

Knowing that I was doing clothes on the road led me to my fourth decision which was the type of clothes I was going to take with me. For this trip I chose comfort and convenience over fashion, but your decision may vary based on your destination and your mode of transport. I chose clothing made of nylon or poly/cotton blend. These fabrics tend to be low wrinkle, and dry very easily and quickly. I took a few pair of REI Sahara convertible pants and several short-sleeved poly/cotton blend shirts. It helps that I used to be a runner and have a lot of shirts from races I’ve done in the past – these were perfect for the trip.

Making all these decisions and planning out a strategy helped me stay well within the limits imposed on this trip. I also saved my packing list in Wunderlist, and so I’ll have it available for future trips. The good news is I can substitute items as needed based on where I’m going and how. If I need more “dress up” clothes I can substitute khakis or slacks for the convertible pants, and a wrinkle-free dress shirt for one or more of the athletic shirts. For colder climates, I can throw a jacket into my bag – I’m a big fan of the packable jackets from North Face.

It takes imagination, creativity and planning – but learning to pack light is a great skill for frequent travelers to have!


In defense of the 2-week vacation

beachHow long was your last vacation? More importantly, when was the last time you took a vacation? My wife and I just returned from a twelve-day safari in Africa (photos and story coming soon!), and friends I have from the UK and Europe average three to four weeks off per year. Vacations like this seem to be the exception for Americans rather than the rule – Americans earn, and take, less vacation than virtually any other industrialized country in the world. The data for Americans are staggering:

Not only are fewer American workers eligible for vacation than any other time in history, even fewer people are taking the vacation to which they are entitled. Why is that, exactly? Reasons vary, but it often is directly related to one’s job or career. People don’t want to take long vacations because they might be perceived as being slackers, or due to the workload that would pile up in their absence, or they’re afraid of missing out on critical business. In short it’s not because the trip isn’t affordable, it’s because of the strong attachments many people have to their careers.

A 2013 article from Forbes magazine lays out the very strong case for the benefits of using all your allotted vacation time. Vacations help workers deal with job and life stress better, and actually help people become better workers. These, in turn, help companies reduce employee burnout, lost productivity and turnover – a significant problem in business today. A 2010 study from New Zealand shows that people derive mental and physical health benefits from the act of planning a vacation. From personal experience, I can say that the planning aspect of a vacation is at least half of the fun!

I was fortunate enough to take two separate two-week vacations this year. One was spent camping in some US National Parks out west, and the other was spent on my African safari to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Both vacations were wonderful, relaxing and fun. They also helped recharge my soul, which I really needed.

Careers are important, don’t get me wrong – but there is more to life than work. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking “Someday I will go to…” The time is now. Where will you go? Get out there, enjoy life and take a vacation!

Plan a visit to a city in the US you’ve never visited like New York or Chicago or Dallas. Take a few days to get away to Bermuda or the Bahamas. Or take a longer trip to the Caribbean or Central America when the weather at home turns cold. But do something – the change of perspective and the break from the ordinary will do you a world of good.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay / csharker

National Park Road Trip

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enamored with America’s National Parks and the opportunities they offer to experience nature face to face. This summer, I took the opportunity to experience a few parks: The Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

I’m an avid and so that was the real focus (pun intended) of my trip. I also wanted to camp out, which I’d never done before. I also wanted to make good use of my time and decide ahead of time what I wanted to see and photograph. The research and pre-trip planning made everything go smoothly, yet it allowed me time and space to go “off script” and see things I hadn’t planned to experience.

Getting There

Google Maps is a great resource for planning your driving route. I was able to create a map and download it to my iPhone – using the Google Maps app on my phone, I had excellent directions during the entire trip.

Coming from the Midwest as I did, Interstate 90 is the easiest and fastest way to get to all these destinations. I followed it from Illinois up through Wisconsin and Minnesota, then headed west toward South Dakota. 90 continues on into Wyoming – and at Buffalo, Wyoming you can pick up Route 16 to head directly into the park. If your trip originates in or near Colorado, take Interstate 25 north and join up with Route 16 in Buffalo, WY. If you’re coming from the northwest or southwest, take Interstate 84 or 80 (respectively) east to Interstate 15.

If you choose to fly, consider heading to Bozeman, MT or to Jackson, WY. Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) is located in the Grand Teton area and provides service to/from Denver, Salt Lake City, and other major hubs for most airlines.

Badlands National Park

07-28-16-badlands-np-110-hdr-1The trip started with an overnight stay in Badlands National Park. I rented a space in the Cedar Pass Campground. The campground is for tents as well as campers and RVs. Since I went in peak season it was pretty full, but I had no trouble reserving a spot ahead of time. I arrived just in time to set up camp and to capture a beautiful sunset.

07-29-16-badlands-np-20-hdr-2-edit-edit-1I awoke the next morning early enough to catch the sunrise – and I’m really glad I did. The approach of a cold front made for some really beautiful colors during the sunset, and they were enhanced by light fog that was rolling in.

I found that a single day in the Badlands was enough for me. I planned my visit around photography, and I knew I would get most of my good shots at night or early in the day. If you plan to visit for hiking, you may want to consider a longer stay there.

Yellowstone National Park

After leaving the Badlands I headed out toward Yellowstone. It’s a long drive (about 9 hours) but a beautiful one. Wyoming has a lot of wide open spaces, and towns tend to be few and far between. If you need gas, groceries or other supplies, consider making a quick stop in Cody, Wyoming. It’s about an hour outside the edge of the park and is the last major town for supplies before getting into the park.

I chose to stay at the Canyon Village Campground for this trip because it was well-located for the things I wanted to see. The Canyon Village area also contains stores and restaurants and a gas station. The gas station has a mechanic on staff in case you have any car trouble during your trip. If you plan to travel during peak summer season as I did, plan on reserving your lodging at least 8-10 months in advance, as the sites book up quickly.

brink of the Upper Falls, Yellowstone National ParkAfter a quick stop to set up my tent, I was off to explore. I wanted to spend most of the first day around the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area, and I arrived at the perfect time as the lighting was excellent. Plan for a drive – or better yet, a hike – along both the north and south rim trails.07-31-16-yellowstone-np-215-hdr-3

I found that the best time to venture out and explore was in the morning and I was usually on the road between 6AM and 7AM daily. As a photographer I’m always looking for the best light, and mornings and afternoons tend to have the softest and warmest light to cast everything in a beautiful glow. From a practical standpoint mornings worked out well – most visitors to the park are not up and about until 9AM or later. I found that being among the first ones out meant I had my choice of parking spots and that the vistas were largely uninterrupted by cars or other people. It’s also the best time to see wildlife – most of the animals in the park are active at morning and at night, and tend to rest during the warmer parts of the day.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I had a well-thought out plan to see everything that I was interested in. I found several useful guides and resources that helped me make the best use of my time. I really wanted to see the iconic spots like Old Faithful, the Norris Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs. Seeing all these areas exceeded my wildest expectations – they were absolutely breathtaking, and the views will stay with me forever. But I also made time to stop along the path at several places that just looked interesting and I found some beautiful surprises, like the Twin Lakes area.

I planned a full day in the middle of my trip to visit Grand Teton National Park as well – it’s a beautiful drive and a fantastic destination.

Grand Teton National Park

The drive from Yellowstone to Grand Teton takes you down the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway – a beautiful and convenient route. If you’ve only got a single day or limited time to visit the park, this is an excellent way to see it. There are great vistas and viewpoints along the way, both outside and inside the park.

Another “must see” for me was the area called Mormon Row. It’s in Moose, WY and is just south of the main part of GTNP. Mormon Row is the remainder of a colony of Mormon pioneers who landed in this area in the mid-1800s. There are several iconic barns and buildings in the area, and the skies are big and open – evoking thoughts of the wide open spaces that one sees in this part of the world.

Another “can’t miss” site is the Church of the Transfiguration. It’s a very small Episcopal church located near the south entrance of GTNP. The church has a large picture window in the front area and it’s got a breathtaking view of the Tetons. It’s so relaxing and inspiring to sit for a few minutes and contemplate the view.

My time here was much too short – if I ever visit the area again, I plan to stay in Grand Teton longer to see more wildlife and take in more beautiful vistas.

Summing it up…

Because of careful planning and lots of reading and research, this trip was everything I hoped it would be. All the parks I visited are vast and have tons of things to see – I literally only scratched the surface of what was there to see. Plan your time well, and reserve your lodging well in advance – and you’ll have a great trip.