December 12, 2006

Backpack Churn
Buenos Aires, Argentina

I spent a great deal of preparatory time in the U.S. focusing not on where I was going to go, but what I was going to bring with me. The path is always going to change—wasted energy—but the supplies I carry on my back wouldn't… or so I generally thought.

When I look back at the photo of the innards of my pack, taken a year ago, it's amazing to think about how much has changed. A very solid and well researched foundation, but there were still loads of kinks to work out.

My backpack is small enough to fit in the overhead carry-on compartment of an airplane, but feels like I'm carrying bricks. Where is all this weight coming from?

I take everything out of my pack, lift the items in my hands, and feel nothing—but collectively this stuff is a good 16 or 17 kilos (35+ pounds). My medium sized 54 liter backpack is at capacity.

Gio, my Italian buddy, laughs and shakes his head at all the locks I carry, saying that's a good 5 kilos right there. Probably not that much, but it's a couple pounds worth.

I am on a perpetual mission to refine what I carry—making it the lightest, most durable, and efficient that I can. I don't carry that much clothing, and trying to adapt to wild swings in regional and seasonal climates with the same clothing can be an interesting task. My clothes are still for warm weathered Caribbean islands—cold can be a problem.


I've been a technologist for a long, long time. I'm exceptionally intuitive when it comes to computers, gadgets, and electronics in general, and over the years my environment has been increasingly surrounded by them.

As I planned for my travels, I had the overwhelming desire to remove the technology from my life. It had defined me for so long, I wanted to give opportunity for new interests to take hold—while embracing a more humbled and less burdened lifestyle.

I had reduced the main electronics in my pack to nothing more than a CD player, portable speakers, and a digital camera.

The fancy MP3/CD player that I bought turned out to be a mistake. Compact, light, and durable are qualities that you want items in a backpack to be—it would seem this certainly was not. The thought was to carry a music source that ran on batteries, for which I could easily buy cheap new music on the street (new tunes without the need of a computer), but the bulk of the unit and the accompanying audio discs was just too much.

The player was replaced in Mexico with a loaded iPOD (that was subsequently stolen a month or so later, in Guatemala). I am now using an iRiver MP3 player about the size of my thumb, donated to me by a friend.

I had to send one of my favorite items away with my brother in Costa Rica—the portable JBL speakers. They were fantastic to have, but I was too afraid they'd eventually get stolen as well (and I just didn't need them). Earbud headphones continue to keep breaking on me, though. I'm on my fifth pair—annoying.

I'm also currently on my third camera. A small drop killed my new Canon SD400 in Puerto Rico, and a hammock broke the screen on my replacement SD300 in Honduras. Mailed to me by my photography mentor was a Canon A530 in Guatemala, but the lens cover stopped retracting back in Central America (I have to use my fingernail to open it each time it's powered on) as well as the flash (which will no longer fire). Many others I've met in South America with an A-series camera are having the same problem with the lens guard, but none with the flash.

I'm good to my cameras, and truly don't think my durability expectations are out of line.

I suppose I was probably a little ignorant to think that I could get away with maintaining an online travelogue with only a pen, paper, and an Internet café computer. It turned out that writing posts out for Travelvice on paper, then typing them up, was a nightmare. It was costing me heaps of time and money (especially in the Caribbean, where some cafés were charging ludicrous amounts like US$9/hour).

I hated the idea of carrying around a laptop—convenient and professionally useful as it might be—thoughts of the stress and burden of such things was just too great.

My solution came in a very expensive FedEx package, delivered to the island of Bequia—a PDA (with a collapsible keyboard attachment, later couriered into Mexico). This has been absolutely fantastic. The writing versatility of a laptop, without the bulk. People are amazed by the setup in every hostel I'm at. I simply type whenever I feel like it, save to a memory card, and use my handy memory card reader to transfer it to an Internet enabled computer.


This device has been working out so well for me, that when my brother offered to sell me his wireless Internet (WiFi) enabled Palm for a song, I couldn't refuse. I have only been using this new device for a few days—it was sent down in a package to Buenos Aires (graciously couriered down by one of my dad's coworkers).

A USB thumb drive has been an essential item to have. I've been suffering for the past month, since I misplaced mine in Salta, Argentina. I kept a copy of Portable Firefox, a web browser, on it (among many other important and/or useful things). This application allows me to keep and use all my Web site bookmarks, securely save passwords, as well as surf around without leaving a browsing trail on a public computer.


Things will float in and out of my pack. Sometimes the simplest of items, like a motion sickness bag picked up on a ferry from Tobago to Trinidad, becomes a long-term installment (I use it to hold a dozen clothes pins).

Simple items, such as those clothes pins, or bigger ones, like the mosquito net that was donated to me in Colombia, are items that needed to be a part of my pack. An umbrella and rain jacket also were also lacking, and greatly needed.

I've gone through footwear. I replaced my expensive running shoes with a pair of Diesel's that I bought on sale during my second pass through Puerto Rico (as well as picking up a dress-shirt).

My Teva sandals were a nightmare—I wrote a letter to the company. I have lots of time to write letters now, and I'm not afraid to send one off when I'm greatly displeased (although I should be doing it when I'm feeling the opposite as well). My Reef sandals are great, and had them replaced with the same model (after they fell apart from six continuous months of wear).

I only carry one pair of shorts and pants, and I'm a big fan of the military-grade clothing that I take with. I could never backpack around with jeans—although fashionable, their heavy, and very slow to dry. The TRU-SPEC line is designed to be durable, lightweight, fast drying, and rip and stain resistant—claims that are indeed very true. A big thumbs-up from me.

My backpack itself is holding up very well; although I suppose it could probably use a bath (last washed in March). If I had known two years ago (when I bought the bag for Thailand) what I know now, I would have selected a side-loading model (instead of the top-loading variety). Most side-loading backpacks unzip similar to a suitcase, and allow you access to the entire compartment—avoiding the big dig every time you need to access something from the bottom of the pack.

Related Year-1 Anniversary Writings


Jonathan Mahoney

April 6th, 2009

I just thought I'd let you know that I had never really heard about the TRU-SPEC clothes, and looked them up and they look awesome. I think I'll use them for my impending journey.

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