Backpack Simplicity

Writing is my therapy when we’re traveling, helping me process what it is I think about my experience. I often don’t know what I think until I pull out a pen.

I wrote this when we just started our family’s extended round-the-world trip, about three weeks in (which became the setting for my memoir, At Home in the World). This is one I’ve re-read several times since returning back to normal life, as a reminder of one of my favorite things about vagabonding.

May I keep this perspective when we stay in one place, too.


We have now been traveling for three weeks. In some ways it seems like we left Texas last weekend, but according to my subjective analysis, I’m fairly certain we’ve been on the road for about three months. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, this year, but it’s going to whoosh by fast.

Right now I’m on a double-decker bus in Hong Kong, watching pedestrians and stoplights like a bird on a wire. Tomorrow, we head to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we’ll live for two months and relish in the routine of regular school and office hours, most meals served from a kitchen instead of a corner or cafe, and some semblance of bedtimes.

The world’s got a lot to teach me about living simply. So does the art of traveling.

We’re living out of backpacks this year, and that’s easily been one of my most enjoyable bits of this whole endeavor. A few tops and bottoms, a journal, my stuff for reading, writing, working, and showering, and I’m all set.

yangshuo streets

The kids haven’t complained one bit about backpack living (in fact, I don’t think the boys have even noticed that they’re rotating the same three shirts). To manage only the necessities has been an asset in helping us live more fully in the now—after meandering the streets of Beijing, playing with kids in the streets in Xi’an, or devouring the mountains and caves of Yangshuo—our days’ final ritual is to wash a few bits of laundry, hang them to dry, enter the land of Narnia via Kindle before kissing foreheads goodnight, then do a little cleanup before hitting the hay ourselves. (There’s not much to clean up, so it doesn’t take very long.)

yangshuo water

tate playing

I’ve already exchanged a few items from my original wardrobe, adjusting for the weather and lifestyle. But the total amount has been about the same.

We’re making the most of our surroundings to serve as our kids’ primary textbooks. The natural world and epic manmade art in its various forms have a lot to teach us.

We’re renting apartments and houses when we can, to make everyday, local living the ideal option.

golden week

I know we won’t be backpack living when we eventually return to our “normal” life. But I certainly hope to replicate the practices that embody universal truths, the facts that remain so even when we’re living still.

The old World War II slogan advised us to “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” It’s been my mantra this past month as well. We’re squeezing every last bit out of that toothpaste tube, I can already tell several of our t-shirts will have holes before the trip’s end, I’m shrugging my shoulders about my less than ideal sandal situation, and so far, we’re doing just fine without a car.

ice cream

None of this has really been that painful. I’m unearthing a strange peace about limited belongings. There is freedom in fewer choices.

yangshuo bridge

green tea

Right now, everything I need fits in a bag on my back. I hope to remember this freedom when I unpack it next summer.

The thing best keeping me company right now, aside from near-nightly card games like UNO and streaming TV shows when we’re in the land of decent Internet (Gilmore Girls!), is checking out books from my local library through my Kindle. What a time to be alive, right?

9 months, 5 backpacks, 4 continents, 3 kids,
1 husband.

(It was worth it.)

9 months, 5 backpacks, 4 continents, 3 kids, 1 husband.

(It was worth it.)

36 Comments

  1. Morgan

    So inspiring. Even for someone who lives fairly simply, there is always that temptation for more, even when it’s unnecessary. Love the reminder of the WWII slogan and will definitely have that in my thoughts in the coming days.

    I’m headed to CM myself on Wednesday to attend a conference on ministering to marginalized women and children in Asia. Maybe our paths will cross at the night market or a mangoes and sticky rice stand. 🙂

    • Tsh

      Definitely let me know where you are if you have free time, and if I’m in the area it might be fun to say hi! Feel free to contact me via the contact form, or tweet me if that works. 🙂

      • Morgan

        Fun! Will do.

  2. Sharon

    Yes to the freedom in limited choices. I have learned this – and still am after living in a tiny little rural town for 5 years. Having Target and other shopping hour away helped me pare down my wants and make things work. It’s so easy to get trapped in getting the very best, shopping around wasting lots of time & money, etc. I most often choose to buy quality items that will last, but so many choices can be overwhelming and immobilizing at times.

    • Tsh

      They really can be. It’s well-known in the expat community to avoid big box stores when first arriving back in the U.S.: too many choices is a recipe for panic.

      • Monica

        Ii is joyful to read your blogs & see the IG pics. I spent a year in a remote town in Korea several yrs back. I was in the Army & we had a 4 aisle grocery store & nightly curfew. I travelled. & hiked every free second I could. So glad I was stationed where I was. I do remember bring very angry. Very. When going back to the States & the stores. It felt so overwhelming . I still try to teach my 3 young sons about simplicity in the face of excess but it is a challenge.

  3. chelsea hudson

    this reminds me of one of the quotes that has really stuck with me while reading “Simplicity Parenting”… “What is rare is precious.” there is actually a science behind this… they even advocate having only half a dozen books in a child’s room, for at least a month at a time, so that the child can actually FINISH A BOOK and maybe even read it a few times, thus going deep rather than wide. Its been an eye-opening process thinking through all of this, but your posts seem to confirm the theory. Limited choices give us freedom to go deep, dig deep, and BE rather than hyperactively running from one thing to the next, one outfit to the next, one purchase to the next, etc. cheers!

    • Tsh

      Okay, now I LOVE that, Chelsea. I’ve long held on to the belief of limited choices being more empowering to go deeper, but for whatever reason I never applied this to books. My daughter has a hard time finishing books back in our “real life,” in her room with shelves and shelves of books. Here on the road, however, she only has a Kindle with the few books I put on it for her—and she’s finished three in three weeks. Hmm… I think you’re on to something here. 🙂

  4. GinnyLou

    Tsh,
    In case no one has told you yet, this trip you’re taking will change the lives of more than just your family. My family is living in a very traditional, suburban-neighborhood, world, and the fit has never felt right to us. We are down-sizing possessions, down-sizing schedules, down-sizing activities. We look “weird” to those around us, but it feels so much more natural.

    I don’t know that we will ever make the kind of trip you’re making (hubby is a dentist, kinda hard to make that work on the road), but we are following you everywhere you go! We have maps all around–the walls, the car, the phone. We read about where you are and Google for pics of the places you’ve visited–all with the idea of visiting them ourselves one day.

    And–this is a BIG one for me–we are going on a trip next week (to FL, not exactly exotic, but still…) and I’m flying with my 2 kids, ALONE, and with ONE suitcase for us to share. I have avoided planes like the plague since having kids, but I figure that if you can do what you’re doing, I should be able to start with this!

    Thanks for the inspiration, keep it coming!!

    • Tsh

      GinnyLou, you have no idea how ENCOURAGING your comment here is to us! I read it out loud to Kyle and we’ve both been talking about it this morning. Thank you so much for sharing, and applause to you for taking that trip to Florida. Good for you!

  5. Cujo

    Amen. I’m a typical suburban wife-kids-house guy, and this feeling is much of what I love about backpacking (and bike touring as well). We’re relatively minimalist as far as stuff goes, but backpacking reminds me that almost none of the things I own are truly essential.

  6. Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home

    There were times when backpack living got to me, usually once every couple months when the backpacks would start to get stuffed full with random stuff from our kids, or stinky items that had somehow missed the laundry bag, or when we needed to start switching clothes over for some seasonal weather changes and had to ditch a few things to make it all fit better. I found it easy to keep our backpacks neat and tidy and organized at first, then they’d start to get to be a mess, and I’d spend a whole evening dumping and cleaning them out, ditching what we didn’t need and reorganizing. It always felt so good. 🙂

    The beauty of it was just how little we really had. To be able to sort through our entire family’s belongings in one evening was awesome. I did get sick of my meagre wardrobe at times (mostly when we were in cities full of lovely, fashionable people, like Paris or Buenos Aires or Tokyo), but the rest of the time, I loved the simplicity of just putting on whatever was clean enough and suited the weather.

    In many ways, I actually long to go back to our backpack days. When we first moved into our house and started to unpack our boxes from storage, it was pretty overwhelming. Even though we got rid of literally vanfuls of stuff before we went on our trip, I’ve continued to purge and purge and purge since coming home. Less is so much better, for us, at least. And honestly, for our kids. They’re so much more content the less we have, it seems. And we truly use and love what we have. That’s the way I like it.

    • Tsh

      Yeah, I can tell there will be times I’ll get tired of my stuff… and at that point, I’ll rearrange and reevaluate. There will be a few minor changes in weather in some places (later in the trip), but for the most part, chasing warm weather has helped our packing, I can already tell. 🙂

      Not sure how I’m gonna feel once we hit Paris—I did feel a bit grubby in Hong Kong this week. I may hit up a few places I know about in Turkey before trekking into mainland Europe…

  7. Kristin S

    You will LOVE Chiang Mai.

    Don’t miss the orchid farm.

    • Tsh

      We already do! We were there for two months back in 2007, and our time there is one of the reasons we’re returning there for as long as we are. It’s one of our favorite places in the world. 🙂

  8. Dr. Archer

    Great post! BTW I realized when I was looking for this post on my phone, I had only checked your travel site, but I didn’t realize it was on the flagship site! 🙂 I love following all of your adventures and the wisdom you share always encourages me.

    • Tsh

      Thanks, Archer! And the post is linked through on the travel site, but for whatever reason, the hyperlink doesn’t work when it’s the straight-up home page – you have to click through to the post itself. One of the (very few) downsides to Instagram) is no way to add a link. Which isn’t always a bad thing. 🙂

  9. Lisa/SyncopatedMama

    My husband and I haven’t traveled for as long as you all will be gone and we haven’t been overseas since our daughter was born last year, but we have always taken our overseas (usually about 17 days long) trips with just a small kids-school-type backpack. Even though we traveled over Christmas break and needed long johns, coats, scarves, gloves, hats, and sweaters, we did just fine. We’d always just wear one set of clothes and then bring another to wear while we washed the original (although often because we’d have a base layer and then an outer layer, our “clothes” would be protected and not need real washing!) It’s definitely the best way to travel, in our minds!

  10. Lee @ Modern Granola

    This is so cool. You really realize what’s important to you when your choices are limited, and it helps fuel creativity as well. My ultimate goal is to be able to travel the world with only a backpack. Good post 🙂

  11. Faustina

    With regards to fewer choices making life easier: I work in a boutique retail store and I often find that our customers choose an item faster and are happier with their purchase when we have limited stock or fewer colour choices available. Too many choices overwhelms most people. And, most people tend to second guess themselves and think that a different purchase might make them happier. So much happiness is wrapped up in our purchases, it’s really tragic. Since working here, I have become a happier and pickier consumer.

    • Tsh

      Interesting!

  12. Heather Zsanel

    Love this post. My husband and I were just in China this past June, and seeing all of your pictures made me long for it again. We also learned to wash what we wore that day at night and how to live for three weeks with less clothes. We had spent the three weeks visiting English students from a University in Guilin, and we watched the girls there rotate through three or four outfits, mixing and matching, and it made me think a lot about simplifying my closet even more. The Chinese had so much to teach us about contentment, generosity and hospitality. It has been one of the most life-changing trips we’ve taken thus far, and I’m grateful to see the pictures you post!

    Also just finished reading the Sacred Year last week at your recommendation. Phenomenal. Starting re-reading it this week, determined to take it all in slowly and let the different practices become a part of our lifestyle. Thank you for recommending it!

    • Tsh

      Wow, rereading it already? That’s impressive. I’m only on chapter 6. 😉

  13. Kim

    Fantastic! I had recently stalled out on cleaning out our “junk” areas around the house, but this gives me a second wind. Also, I’m totally binging on Gilmore….which is not helping with the house cleaning tasks…

  14. Melanie

    Wait, what? Gilmore Girls is streaming? Hooray!!!

  15. Mary Roth

    Tsh,
    I just finished one of your books! My dear friend recommended your book, ‘Notes from a Blue Bike..’ I loved it. I also just picked up “the sacred Year” written by Mike who is my friend’s brother-in-law so that book will be next!
    I share your curiosity of the world and I get so much out of traveling! I am on your blog for the first time and it made me smile to see that you are braving backpack life! I did that last February in Vietnam and Thailand and loved the simplicity. It has forever changed my life. Anyway, safe travels and I am excited to read more! You are very inspirational.
    -Mary Roth from Portland, OR

  16. Amy @ Sunlit Pages

    “There is freedom in limited choices.” I’ve thought as much but just not in those same words. I’ve thought about it with little things (like what to wear) but also with really big things (like what I should do about my children’s education). In some ways, we live in a culture where there are far too many options, where we can narrow down every choice until it’s almost exactly right for us . . . but not quite, and then we’re dissatisfied because we were so close to the perfect solution. It might be far better to only have two options and then deal with our choice from that as best we can.

  17. Allie

    GREAT encouragement, Tsh. Thanks for this.

    Plus… “if you’re ever on the road…” never applied better than your adventure. 😉 Gilmore Girls can follow you ANYWHERE.

  18. maverickmom4

    Backpack living = less choices = less stress. Maybe this is why I love camping and living simpler! I love following you around the world!

  19. Abbie

    I totally agree that there is freedom in limited choices. I’ve been doing that for my kids in differing degrees as far as books and toys and if I had more storage out of their closet I’d do it more!

    Also, my kids (9, 7, 5, 3) usually pick the same three outfits anyway. I do enjoy more variety, but after reading several of your packing posts was thinking about choosing several outfits, accessories and shoes and putting them at the front of the closet, then throwing a sheet over everything else for a month. Or finding all the outfits I can wear using one two basic pieces. Hm.

    Thanks for sharing your journey and letting us learn with you.

  20. Jennifer

    Since you are spending some time in Chang Mai you should try to visit the elephant sanctuary there that allows you to bathe & feed the elephants it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. It also a rare-find humane way to interact with these amazing creatures. Enjoy the Gilmore Girls – I never tire of them!

    Happy Travels!

    • Tsh

      Totally planning on it!

  21. Stephanie

    Love seeing photos of your adventures! This year will be one you never forget.

  22. Ashley brooke

    Tsh!
    It’s a beautiful challenge to find other families chasing new paths! Our crew of five (with the newest being 13 weeks) has been traveling in a 31 foot RV for the last year! Still working… But just trying to take every advantage of days off, and stringing some together, so that we can grab as many experiences possible! I’ve never been so alive and so free. It’s connected us in a way that I don’t think even in my best dreams, that I could’ve anticipated. Thank you for being a voice that helps me not to feel so like so much of an outsider! I am so inspired I started a blog too! All our love!

  23. Lee Ann

    A passage from “The Orphan Train” where she discusses the concept of portage, and how Native Americans would only bring with them what they could carry with their kayak, because they would have to carry it ( and the canoe) to get between navigatable pieces of water comes to mind. For the protagonist, who was about to age out of foster care, it was what she brought with her ( physical as well as mental) as she moved between different living situations. I have a hard enough time living out of my suitcase!

  24. Monalisa Matache

    so cool.understand what’s imperative to you when your decisions are restricted, and it helps fuel inattentiveness also.

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