Can you fit your life into a backpack?

by Tammy Strobel on June 1, 2010

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Logan Smith. Logan is my husband, best friend, and the secret force behind RowdyKittens. Enjoy the article peeps!

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Recently I asked a friend about her moving experience. She replied that she was so sick of moving boxes that she considered downsizing to just a backpack. Her frustration about moving reminded me of our moving experiences prior to downsizing.

Minimizing our possessions is the method we used to pursue simpler living. However, my friend’s exclamation of “downsizing to just a backpack” inspired me to consider extreme minimalism. Could I minimize my needs to fit into a backpack? I realized having such a tool at hand could be extremely valuable for more than just travel and hiking recreation.

Miniaturizing your life into a backpack is useful.

Having a minimized copy of your life in a backpack could be very useful in an emergency requiring evacuation. Victims of natural disasters (e.g. fire, flood, etc.) commonly describe their experience as having only enough time to “grab their stuff and run.” Imagine yourself in this scenario and ask:

“Could I evacuate my home in 5 minutes or less and be prepared to have everything I need for at least 72 hours?”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that people should be prepared to be “without assistance” for 72 hours or longer. After hurricane Katrina many experts advised people to be prepared for a much longer response time, ranging from 1 – 2 weeks. By having a backpack organized to meet minimum needs and comforts we can be more physically and emotionally prepared for an emergency situation. We consider our backpack kits essential emergency insurance.

Can I really fit everything I need into a backpack?

Yes. World travelers practice the simplicity of backpack living on a daily basis. Considering the hierarchy of needs, humans require relatively little to live. Our basic needs are shelter, water, food and companionship. To complement our needs acquiring stuff provides us with comfort.

Finding the appropriate balance between need and comfort is a journey all of us face on the path to simpler living. More comfort and stuff does not necessarily lead to more satisfaction or happiness. Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin describe this relationship as the “enough point” in their book Your Money or Your Life. What is your “enough point“? What is the minimum amount of stuff required to meet your needs and be adequately comfortable?

5 Tips to Get Started

In a backpack kit one’s “enough point” is going to be limited to portability (namely size and weight). If removed from our everyday environment you must make accommodations to meet your personal needs independently. Here are some suggestions for items to consider when building “the house on your back:”

1. Pack in consideration of your basic needs first and in order of survival priority: shelter, water and food.

2. Choose items in your kit that have a multipurpose use (single task items have less value per weight). In a future post I will detail the items we included in our emergency backpack kit.

3. Make digital back-ups of irreplaceable pictures and paper copies of important documents (e.g. Birth certificate, social security card, photo ID, etc).

4. Prepare personal skills such as map reading and first aid to complement your pack kit. As your skill level increases your “enough point” decreases. As bushcraft author and instructor Mors Kochanski says “the more you know the less you carry”.

5. Plan your actions for responding to different emergency scenarios that are likely for your area (e.g. earthquakes, fire, flood, hurricanes, etc.).

Many of the items you need to pack you probably already have around your home. All it takes is gathering them into one location. You may need to purchase a couple items such as first aid supplies but relative to other emergency insurance plans these items are very inexpensive.

What the hell does all of this mean?

Preparation of a backpack kit is useful not only as emergency preparedness but also as an exercise in minimalism and simpler living. Being aware of our “enough point” boundaries is very empowering. Upon personal reflection, simpler living has given me an almost indescribable sense of satiety, peace of mind and liberty.

Further Resources…

1 Vivien June 1, 2010

Great post. Thank you Logan =)
Coincidence, I will move very soon (Lived in Norway for a year, coming back to France) and travel before coming home. I don’t have/own/need a lot of things, fortunately, but it’s still too much for my liking. “Fitting my life in a backpack” would be useful !

2 Deb J June 1, 2010

Good info Logan. We moved and we are now working on a new emergency kit since we have different needs. I’m looking forward to your post about what you put in your backpacks.

3 Michael June 1, 2010

My wife, my son, and I were part of the Hurricane Floyd evacuation in the late 90′s and we packed up the car taking only what we thought we could not live without (everyone was convinced that there would be nothing left of Jacksonville when we returned).

It was actually kind of liberating knowing that we had with us (“on our backs”) everything we needed to set up house somewhere else. And, of course, we had each other which was more important than any building or material possessions.

4 Courtney Carver June 1, 2010

I can’t wait to hear what you put in your pack. This is a great way, not only to prepare for the unknown, but also to have the confidence of traveling light.

5 Dawn June 1, 2010

Great idea! I have been trying to figure out what to put in my backpack for when I go into labor as well as what to put into B’s diaper bag for when she is born and I think that this is my answer. I also live in earthquake territory so it’d be good for me to do this anyway for B and I. It’ll be interesting to try and make it under the 20 lb weight limit that is imposed upon you once you are pregnant. :)

6 Logan June 1, 2010

Hi All!

Thanks for your interest! :) Tammy and I are thinking about following up on this topic by shooting a short video regarding the specifics of our backpacks. What do you think? Karen’s new free ebook at openskyvideo.com has us thinking we should try a new medium. :)

We also want to address how we have adapted these kits to carry on our bikes since we live without a car. For now, while you are waiting for our next post regarding our details you may find some inspiration from the following resources we used to assemble our kits:

1. Doug Ritter and his website equipped-to-survive inspired most of our choices regarding gear selection and priority. He has an informative article here covering this topic as well as a podcast. http://equipped.org/72hourkit.htm

2. Janaia and Robyn of Peak moment TV have a great video conversation on this topic with Matthew Stein: http://www.wordpress.peakmoment.tv/conversations/?p=198

Cheers and good luck!

7 Jarkko Laine June 1, 2010

Sounds like a video that I at least would watch. So I say go for it :)

This was a really interesting post, and I love it that you’ve actually implemented those backpacks to live from. The book Emergency (This book will save your life) by Neil Strauss had some similar ideas, especially the part of getting skills that helps you to survive, but whereas Emergency reads as a fun adventure, your post feels more like real preparation for whatever comes your way.

Maybe the next step is that you notice the backpack is enough already when there is no emergency at all? Thanks for the inspiration!

8 Bill June 1, 2010

I moved onto a small sailboat several years ago. I sold off everything that would not fit on the boat.

I do still have a box stored at home filled with ax returns and papers, and a few old photo albums. Everything else is aboard.

Getting rid of the cars, the furniture, the junk, was incredibly liberating. What a joy to see my possessions go to good homes and families who can make better use of it than me.

Now I live afloat in the Caribbean, moving from tropical bay to bay. I have wind power and solar power, use almost no fuel (just 10 pounds of propane every 3 months and a gallon of gas every two weeks for the dinghy.

None of my possessions owns me anymore.

Life is sweet.

You don’t need all that STUFF people!

9 finallygettingtoeven.com June 1, 2010

The backpacks that you refer to are also known as EPK’s (Emergency Preparedness Kits) or Bug-out-Bags. There is tons of information on them if you google the a fore mentioned names.

We have a bug out bag here and we keep it in the garage where it is ready to grab at a moments notice. We also have a list of items to grab from the house if we have time and it’s practical (laptop, files, etc). We keep a written list because when one is under duress things can get forgotten. Our 2 cats also have their own BOB. All members of the family need to know where these are housed as not everyone may be in the position to make it back to the home to grab them.

I will be posting on my blog in the next few weeks items considered practical for your BOB and keep in mind that it needs to change with the seasons so you must keep it updated, sweaters are useless in the summer heat, priceless in a winter storm.

On another note keep in mind that while it is great to be a minimalist sometime you might have to shelter-in-place and if that is the case you must be prepared to not leave your home either for a min of 72+ hours. Will you have enough in your home to get you through this amount of time.

10 Logan June 1, 2010

@finallygettingtoeven – Thanks for the follow up comment. Those are indeed great points! I am going to address many of those specifics in the follow up post and I’m glad you mentioned them here also. :)

Good point on the minimalist subject. Although minimalism implies scarcity, minimalism actually prioritizes fundamentals. We should include an explicit clarification in our next post of not skimping on the essentials like surplus insulating shelter and water that are necessary when you can’t immediately depend on a resupply at the grocery store.

Cheers, :)

11 John June 1, 2010

Hey thanks for the advice. I am really thinking about simplifying my life. Even though I don’t seem to have much, it is still way more than I need. That seems to be the issue, thinking I need something, when in fact I do not.
I don’t know if I can get down to one backpack; it represents a bit much at this point. Yet the idea of it is really helpful. Knowing that people live out of a backpack, and live well, is quite a shaking thought. It challenges my idea of what is really necessary.
I just started reading this blog but really love it. Thanks, John

12 Bill Gerlach June 1, 2010

Awesome post, Logan. Thanks for the reminder about pulling together the family go-bag. I’ll assume you’re a fellow backpacker. If readers have the access and means to do so (you can rent most gear these days), they should try their hand at backpacking. It’s an amazing (and at times, nerve-racking) feeling assessing your hierarchy of needs and forcing yourself to organize that into a backpack. But doing it once or twice gives you a new perspective on how to approach your priorities for true survival. What’s good for the trail is good for life!

Can’t wait for the follow ups. Video would rock. Be well.

13 Living Large in Our Little House June 2, 2010

Great post, Logan. We learned last year during a devastating ice storm that you cannot depend on anyone but yourself in a disaster. Eventually, you have the help of neighbors and even later, a little help from the government if you’re lucky.

14 Katie June 2, 2010

Wow, Logan (and Tammy) what a great post. Useful and yet so very poignant and thought provoking. It’s wonderful to hear you express the rewards of simplifying so passionately “an almost indescribable sense of satiety, peace of mind and liberty”. You know you’re on the right path when you feel that way. It’s interesting you often hear of those who have lost all their possessions in a disaster speak of how liberating it ended up being. Very nice post.

15 Dave June 2, 2010

Wow, I never knew Logan was a secret force! Sounds like a super-hero! :)

While we haven’t gone so far as to fit things we need into a backpack (nor do we own a backpack), the last time we moved, we dumped about 50% of our possessions (mostly to Goodwill and friends), and I can say from experience that it feels extremely good to get rid of possessions that you don’t need, and are just there taking up space. Especially if someone else can make good use of them.

One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite authors (Antoine de Saint-Exupery): “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”

This process of removing extraneous possessions has a good parallel to life itself – the closer you can come to paring yourself down to the essentials of what is truly you and not the baggage built up on top of you (by yourself or others) from life, the closer you come to being what you are meant to be.

16 Logan June 2, 2010

@Dave, Great sentiment of sharing possessions. Sharing and building community is a great thing! That quote is also one of our favorites and it provides a great insight into this exercise.

By the way, the backpack is only an easy example of this process. Any sturdy and transportable container will do. Tony Nester of Ancient Pathways recommends any bucket or storage bin to organize and contain your needs (http://www.apathways.com/).

17 DJ June 2, 2010

Pack extra medications in your backpack and make sure you keep them current. In an emergency, you can’t always evacuate to a safe place as quickly as might be ideal… clean water and medications are important.

18 Pawel - Self Employed Cafe June 2, 2010

Years ago I decided to limit the number of things I had to be able to fit them into a carrier on my motorbike. I never got there really but having said that a journey I was planning got cancelled so my motivation went down.
These days I’d say it would be pretty impossible to even attempt such a thing, which is a shame really.

19 Little House June 2, 2010

I’ve been meaning to put together my “survival” backpack. Living in SoCal, I realize that “the big one” could hit at any time!

As for my most simplistic living experiences, whenever I go camping I realize what I can go without and what I can’t. If I knew how to live off the land, my camping gear could be reduced as well. ;)

20 ET June 2, 2010

I disagree – you say minimalism actually prioritizes fundamentals. I think minimalism actually prioritizes relationships. With a pack this small you are hooped if you don’t have other people who will help you. You can get by for a short while but soon you will need food and shelter beyond what you can carry or store. You can sometimes buy (or carry) your way out of being hungry/cold/wet/tired but other times and situations no amount of money (or preparedness stuff) will help – you need a friend.

Of course, there are extreme loners and people who thrive in the wilderness but is unlikely that we will walk out of our cozy homes and be comfortable in the wild.

21 Logan June 3, 2010

Thanks for bringing this up! It is a misnomer to think that you can grab a backpack, head into the woods and “live off the land”. I believe relationships and companionship are indeed fundamental to one’s life and therefore an integral part of minimalism. This backpack represents stuff for a short term emergency. The minimalist exercise distills our needs and should make it obvious that you need to depend on other people. People living in large homes often insulate themselves away from other people in the community and don’t realize how much they depend on the invisible web of folks supplying the food, the utilities, and the trash collection. Typically if you are evacuating an area in an emergency you will already have a planned destination in mind where family or friends can help you. :) Cheers!

22 Bankruptcy Ben June 6, 2010

There is something in this that appeals to my soul. The idea of have nothing but the possessions that fit in a back pack. My tools make life alot easier and cheaper. I can’t fit my ratchet set or my screwdrivers in a back pack. Where do I draw the line that’s my issue. I’m sure I have a bunch of crap I don’t use those. That’s the point I guess.

23 geva June 7, 2010

Hey Logan,

I’ve lived out of a backpack for about a year (a big one however – 80 litres). It definitely shows you a thing or two about what you need and what you don’t; and especially weight, as the grams/ounzes add up VERY quickly. The best part is however knowing that you don’t have a houseful of “stuff” that is like a big anchor pulling you down to the bottom of the sea. It is very liberating getting rid of your stuff, and having only a small amount of possetions (it makes it easier to find as well).

I’ve recently put together a survial kit for weekends in the mountains, away, hiking, etc. It is essentially a general purpose survival + first aid kit to provide some bare necessities. It is about 7″x4″x3″ (19x11x7cm) and weighs about 4 lbs (2kg). A big difficulty that I had was balancing the weight and size with the usefulness of the kit; as the amount of stuff you’ve got certainly provides for a longer support period, as well as options to cover. The point with the kit is to take it everywhere, so that the contents are there when needed, as opposed to having “everything” in the car, or the closet, but being hours from either.

Based on the above experience, I guess I second guessed a bit the idea of having most of what you need already at home. The problem with this idea is the use of design of the things that you’re talking about. A bottle opener for example, designed for the kitchen is all pretty, ergonomic, etc., however you could find something to be used in a pinch that is 1/10th the weight and size. Same idea goes for something like anticeptic dissenfectant, I’d prefer to have individulally wrapped alcohol (or other) wipes that can be used on various occasions, be light, as well as not provide risk of spillage or weight and packing constraints that a bottle would provide.

It’s just me… but I’d rather spend the extra cash and use things aquired for the need, as opposed to using what is on hand. This also means that you won’t dip into the “kit” or “backpack” and forget to put something back.

I’m looking forward to your next post/video…

Cheers,

Greg

24 total June 16, 2010

I was enjoying this article up until the cancer sticks in his hand in the picture.

25 Tammy June 16, 2010

Actually Logan was picking up trash in the park. He doesn’t smoke.

26 Matt June 19, 2010

A friend of mine did something similar…for a couple years now he has been living with just 100 possessions. This includes everything but food and toiletries. If he gets something new, he gets rid of something else. I think most of the time he is actually under the 100 item mark.

On another note, I’m going to be moving to Thailand soon for 1+ years. Originally I planned on taking quite a bit of stuff…movies, xbox, a few duffle bags of clothes. Instead though, I’ve just ordered a 90L backpack with a small daypack attachment. I plan on taking what I can fit in there and living out of that. I’m looking forward to keeping up with this post and any follow-ups.

27 Pii the Walking Crab August 10, 2010

My husband and I don’t really own more than we can fit in backpacks plus one guitar bag with a strap that makes it easily to carry. We have a few changes of clothes, to reduce the amount of washing and detergent use of only having one pair, and we have an xbox and cds. The computer used to type this was 10$ at the thrift store, and if we had to move would be returned to that same thrift store, as we have always traveled by bus when we had to move. One time we moved and he wanted to bring the computer tower we had at the time, and while inconvenient he still managed to do it; I just carried the xbox and my clothes and he had his guitar bag and clothes together on his back since he’s the stronger of us. We lack an emergency first aid kit type thing, but that would easily be added somewhere with minimal additional weight. We were able to carry all this stuff around a hot IN city on the 6 hour layover without too much discomfort, because we are already accustomed to walking all the time and carrying our groceries back to our studio apartment where we lived.

So our shelter wasn’t portable, but we had a combined total of 50 items or less, and that could have included food too, as a can of nuts is compact and offers you many nutrients and so is a water bottle that you can refill anywhere in a city for free.

It’s doable, even by people with children. One or two children can be carried if they’re too small, and can walk with you if they’re older. Any more children than that, and I personally think there are too many children because overpopulation is a huge reason the world is such a big environmental mess. It’s debatable whether people should really have any new children at this point, but that isn’t this topic..

Either way, it’s doable if people can withstand a little discomfort. And if they bring bikes, that load can be even more easily distributed, with less strain on the individuals.

28 Ciccio October 8, 2010

I think it would be rather cool and radical if Logan DID smoke. Maybe it’s not too late for him to start or at least have a puff now and then ?

29 Tammy October 8, 2010

@Ciccio – LOL! No luck on that my friend. Logan loves his beer and wine, but that’s about it. :)

30 Kate May 3, 2011

I could probably _get_ both cats into a backpack, but I’m not sure both of them would survive the experience (and I’m pretty sure I _wouldn’t_).

…all smartassness aside, I could pack for the three of us in this lovely back-basket I have; I don’t need much. The worst part would, in fact, be carrying the cats.

31 Tammy May 4, 2011

@Kate – :) I know what you mean. Do you have a kitty carrier?

32 Kate May 4, 2011

I have one small cat carrier for Chocolate — a soft one, that I can sling across my back if necessary. Loiosh walks on a leash so I don’t have a carrier for him, but trying to get him to walk _with_ me if I had to — that’d be the tricky part! I’d probably wind up hitching him into the back basket with the stuff, which would annoy both of us, but he’d live.

33 Tammy May 4, 2011

@Kate – I LOVE that Loiosh can walk on a leash. That is amazing. :)

34 Kate May 4, 2011

He is SO much fun — just perfectly serene with travelling, meeting new people, going new places. He’s at home wherever he is. I’ve learned a lot from him about that sort of thing! All he needs is his Momma, his food, and somewhere soft to sleep, yanno?

I have a facebook page for him, because I’m an overindulgent catmommy: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Loiosh/153916144942

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