Declutter: All We Need To Be Happy Fits in a Backpack

| August 10, 2009 | 16 Comments
clutter Declutter: All We Need To Be Happy Fits in a Backpack

All we really need to be happy fits in a backpack. Photo by Wokka (Creative Commons)

Round-the-world travel is a great way to find out how much you truly need. In the past, Kathryn and I have usually traveled with a 65L expedition pack and a small daypack, and can unreseverdly say that all we really need to be happy fits in a backpack—it’s a theme that we touched on in last month’s article, “Why Go Round-The-World?

These sentiments are echoed in an article by Jenn DiPiazza at Brave New Traveler:

In junior year I went to the Navajo Reservation and spent six months living in the middle of the desert. I brought with me only a sleeping bag and a backpack with two pairs of pants, several shirts, a week’s worth of underwear and socks, one pair of shoes, one wool sweater and a coat. I lived with a family who had very little in terms of material goods and I learned not to waste anything. It was the most important lesson of my life.

Having at one time led an itinerant existence, Kathryn and I now know that we can live very well out of a small bag; however, over the past few years, the knowledge gained from our travels has faded somewhat, lost under a ream of papers somewhere.

To be fair, in the time since our Asian odyssey, we were married and have become homeowners. As such, we’ve become painfully aware of the Aristotelian proclomation that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’.

We now believe that clutter is like a gas. And like a gas, its form is mutable and expands to fill the space available to it. When Kathryn and I moved into our clutter-free home, we had nothing more than a couple of backpacks worth of stuff—literally. We had just returned from working abroad in Asia and then traveling around the region a little.

Once settling into our new home, we quickly learned that our clutter-free space would not remain so for very long. Outside pressure soon acted upon all of the junk external to our lives and all of the clutter from our consumer-oriented society flowed into our home to replace the diminishing space within.

Aristotle was right, at least as clutter around the home is concerned. Rolf Potts, author of the backpacker’s manifesto, Vagabonding, writes:

Travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe it, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack. This will never work, because no matter how meagerly you live at home, you can’t match the scaled-down minimilaism that travel requires. You can, however, set the process of reduction and simplification into motion while you’re still at home. This is useful on several levels: Not only does it help you save up travel money, but it helps you realize how independent you are of your possessions and your routines.

So, in preparation for our departure we’re working, as Rolf Potts would say, to “earn our freedom” and are looking to embrace the process of reduction and simplification. We believe that our environment represents who we are at our deepest levels. As such, it is important that we show ourselves that we’re moving through life in a positive, assertive direction—whether it be figurative, at home, or literal, on the road.

If we exist in a cluttered environment, we’re likely to feel bogged down and at its most extreme, lacking control. If, however, we’re living in a well-organized space, we’re more likely to feel unencumbered, empowered and confident. Hence, we are attempting to jettison the ballast from our lives now, so that we can fly with light luggage later.

We’ve picked up a few tips along the way—from a number of ‘decluttering’ gurus.

If we exist in a cluttered environment, we’re likely to feel bogged down and at its most extreme, lacking control. If, however, we’re living in a well-organized space, we’re more likely to feel unencumbered, empowered and confident.
Our environment represents who we are at our deepest levels. As such, it is important that we show ourselves that we’re moving through life in a positive, assertive direction — whether it be figurative, at home, or literal, on the road.

Select tips

Single-task. Multi-tasking, for the most part, is a good way to fill your mind with a lot of activity without a lot of productivity. It certainly doesn’t help with focus. Instead, try to single-task—just focus on the task at hand—decluttering. [source: Laurie Deschene]

Ten minutes a day. Ten minutes a day doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but it quickly adds up. Pick a time slot and stick to it every day so that de-cluttering becomes a part of your regular routine.  Bottom line—find a time that works for you and stick to it. [source: Vanessa Raymond]

Use the “one in, two out” rule. Whenever you bring an item into your home, you have to throw away two other items. First you cheat, by throwing out two pieces of paper, but soon you will have to move to big stuff.  [source:  zenhabits].

Ask yourself questions for clarity. If you don’t know what to do with an item, ask yourself some questions for clarity, such as “Do you love this item?”, “Have you used this item in the past year?” and “Do you really need this item?” The more questions you ask yourself, the easier your decision will be. [source: Mahalo]

Reduce junk mail. Every year, Americans and Canadians receive about 105 billion pieces of junk mail—credit card offers, coupons, and catalogs. That’s 848 pieces of junk mail per household. Even though 44% of that mail goes to the landfill unopened, we still spend eight months of our lives dealing with it all. Eight months. To reduce, junk mail, tape a “No Junk Mail” sign on or in your mail box or mail slot. For Canadians,  if your sign is ignored download, sign and date this letter and mail to your nearest Canada Post outlet. Sign up with the Canadian Marketing Association’s “Do Not Contact” registry. This enables you to reduce the number of marketing offers received by mail, telephone and fax. For Americans, check out the ForestEthics website for some comprehensive tips (and a petition) to reduce unwanted direct mail. [source: Red Dot Campaign]

If you have any decluttering tips to add, please post them here!

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

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  1. Traveling The Blogosphere - August 2009 | Taking off Travel blog | August 13, 2009

  1. I loved this piece! It sounded achingly familiar… For three years on the road I happily lived out of my backpack. I had a change of clothing, a few files (I was a writer after all), a laptop, a few cables (not much – this was the 1990s) and a book to read. That was it!

    Now I have a house, and each room has furniture. My clothes closet is a small room in itself and I have far more than I need or can use.

    What my own ‘decluttering’ taught me is that it is survivable. I can do it. If I have to, I can live with very little, almost with nothing, actually. And that knowledge is the little bit of freedom I can hang onto right now.

    Thanks for the well-timed reminder!

  2. Kathryn says:

    Next week we are going to begin our task of decluttering! I have to say, I am so excited! Despite the fact that we both don’t buy very much, throw out a lot of stuff, and don’t tend to keep anything we feel we don’t need, we still have a ton of stuff to get rid of….I have no idea how this happens! I know we will both feel so much better once we get rid of this stuff!

  3. Fantastic article!

    I am with Scribetrotter here. When I first left Canada to move to Japan, I came with only the possessions that I could take on the airplane. Everything else was useless to me.

    Then I bought a house in Japan and filled it with more junk and furniture than I care to admit. Now as I plan to leave again and embark on a more nomadic lifestyle, I need to start getting rid of stuff fast.

    It is incredibly liberating to know that I don’t need, nor want to buy anything else. It is not about consumption anymore, it is detoxification from consumerism.

    My decluttering has already begun but I still have a ways to go.

    • Daniel says:

      Hey John—it seems like we’re occupying similar mental spaces! I like the notion of detox. In a sense that’s what we’re seeking through travel, as well—a mental detox.

  4. Dave and Deb says:

    I hate clutter. I am always trying to get rid of things. Luckily for me, I don’t have a huge attachment to anything and have no problem donating it if I haven’t used it in a year. That’s my rule. Problem is, sometimes I throw things out too soon and go why did I do that? But then after a little while I forget what it was in the first place. Dave has a bunch of concert T-shirts that he won’t let me give away. He hasn’t worn them in 10 years,but we keep them for sentimental purposes. One day I am going to make some art out of all of the logos and put it up on a wall.

    • Daniel says:

      Concert Ts are sacred—I broke out a god-awful Tragically Hip concert T from the early 90s at their recent concert in Toronto. It sat at the bottom of my dresser for 15 years—and to there it will return!

  5. Hi Daniel
    I totally know where you are coming from.
    6 years ago my wife and I had 2 backpacks and were sharing a single bunk in a hostel. Now there is stuff everywhere!
    When I look around to see how much junk we collect when we stand still and go back to normality of everyday life, it at times comes depressing.
    There is something to be said for about having free space an uncluttered thoughts that travel gives you. Travel is the escape mechanism that frees a lot of things in life.
    Happy Travels

  6. Danny says:

    Great advice but I have to say that a 65L pack plus a front pack is still too much to travel comfortably. Everything of mine fits into 55L and that is still too big a pack for me (I have about 40L worth of things).

    Aside from the strain on the back, having fewer things really does make life easier. We make so many decisions every day while travelling it is wonderful when we are forced to choose the only clean shirt to wear and don’t have to decide what to wear.

    • Kathryn says:

      When I have packed my 60L pack (usually it is stuffed) I don’t end up wearing all the clothes I pack. However, I think men have a much easier time packing. There are many things that women need that men don’t. These things take up so much room!

  7. Anil says:

    It’s hard to let go of things, to sell them or trash them. It helps to have someone to ‘reality check’ the things you say you “need”. My wife is a good dose of practicality :) and it goes both ways!

  8. It also makes a big difference if you figure out what does more than one thing and what is just a very narrow, single-use item. This helps you live more simply at home and it is essential thinking when packing up a backpack for a long trip. You can see lots of double-duty items reviewed regularly on the Practical Travel Gear blog:

  9. @GotPassport says:

    Daniel and Kathryn: Love this! We are in the process of going through the very same thing: Decluttering! At least we are, mentally, at the moment. Feels so overwhelming. After being away for nearly 90 days as a family, with two suitcases in Asia and everything we need in a Honda Fit during our month long road trip, my suspicion was confirmed, we have WAY TOO MUCH STUFF! It’s a huge challenge for the three of us, but a must do to FREE ourselves! Glad I read this!

  10. Tango Lucy says:

    This sounds all too familiar. My Achilles heel of organization is junk mail and papers. Now I won’t even let myself bring it into the house. We have a mail room in our apartment complex and I throw it away right when I get it! Another tip I have is carrying around a basket when you are cleaning your house, and putting the out of place things into it so you can easily carry them to the right place. Thanks for the article!

  11. Josh says:

    You guys nailed it! Love the post.

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