Article: Will Self on solving packing anxieties

The business traveler should bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble…There are very few necessities in this world which do not come in travel-size packets…Always bring a book as protection against strangers. Magazines don’t last, and newspapers from elsewhere remind you you don’t belong. But don’t take more than one book. It is a common mistake to overestimate one’s potential free time, and consequently over-pack. In travel, as in most of life, less is invariably more. And most importantly, never take along anything on your journey so valuable or dear that its loss would devastate you. (William Hurt, The Accidental Tourist)

In this short article in the New Statesman, author and self confessed bag-o-phobe Will Self takes a drastic approach to packing for a trip and heads to the US without any luggage. 

There is no shortage of advice on the internet about what and how to pack. From the type, size and weight of bag, which clothes to take and how how to fold them.  It is now even possible to have a company pack for you (you send them the bag and the items you want packed and they do the rest) or avoid luggage issues altogether by paying a company to send your bag to your destination separately to avoid excess baggage fees.  (Yes, really.)  

Everyone it seems has their packing routines and tricks, as this video shows:

Confessing to his own aversion to luggage and an obsession about continually trying to pack lighter and smaller, Will Self suggests we ditch the physical bags.  If we manage to free ourselves, he argues surely the psychological baggage and insecurities that go with them will follow and, unencumbered, we will be more receptive to the places we visit.  

As you might expect of a seasoned traveller, Rolf Potts has thought of this previously and in 2011 undertook a Round the World challenge with no bag, instead packing everything into a utility vest:

Only last year on Kickstarter, another company was trying to crowdsource funding for a similar jacket (be sure to check out the incorporated eye mask and neck pillow at 01:28):  

Rolf Potts and BauBax may have beaten him to the idea but Will Self has seen the short-lived happiness these would bring and the sleepless nights that would follow as we inevitably lie awake playing a mental version of Tetris, stuffing different combinations of objects into pockets to maximise what we can take with us on our travels.


Book: Rolf Potts on being a vagabond

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts 

Published by Villard Books (2003)

“Time is your truest form of wealth.

There is no shortage of available books and blogs dispensing advice on how to break free from daily routine and travel the world on a shoestring.  The difference with Vagabonding is that it is worth reading. And re-reading.      

Rolf Potts is a widely published and highly regarded travel writer.  He started writing a regular column with at the end of the ’90s and has since written for most (if not all) major travel publications and has published two books: Vagabonding, is the first, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a collection of essays and the second.  

As Potts playfully recognises, there is no getting away from the fact that Vagabonding is really a form of self help book.  Although it might claim to be aimed at those who are unsure how to find the time freedom and money to travel for long periods there is, however, plenty in Vagabonding for seasoned travellers. 

Vagabonding sets out to dispel several myths about travel, the main one being that you are not too poor to travel.  It does this not by explaining how you can become rich enough to travel the world in luxury.  Instead, it aims to demonstrate how, to realise the dream of travelling for long periods of time, adjusting our lives to utilise our time better is more important than having a trust fund or huge pots of money.  

Potts is clearly passionate and serious about long term travel as a deliberate choice about how to live one’s life.  Thoreau, one of Potts’ literary heroes, would approve:

True and sincere travelling is no pastime but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it.

Vagabonding can assist with that probationary period.  Vagabonding starts at home in every sense and, with the first section of the book devoted to pre-trip matters, Vagabonding helps point the way showing how the vagabonding mindset begins way before the trip from working to raise the funds, quitting work and simplifying our lives.  Potts usefully points out that pre-trip periods can be spent usefully working out why it is that we want to go, what we are looking for from our trips and what kind of traveller we want to be once we set out.  

Potts takes us through his personal philosophy of travel showing that vagabonding is not simply a consumer option, accessory, trend or something done out of obligation; nor is it a political statement, social gesture or moral high ground.  It is a personal act requiring commitment and realignment of priorities.  

Potts draws on an impressive variety of sources to illustrate his ideas, as well as to inspire and confront myths that might otherwise hold us back.  From ancient Sanskrit poetry, the teachings of the Upanishads, 19th century transcendentalists such as Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, Islamic authors and a whole range of 20th century authors, poets and travel writers as well as the voices of contemporary travel bloggers, the sheer variety of sources alone makes Vagabonding an interesting reading and worth re-visiting.   The aim of Vagabonding seems to echo that behind Sir Francis Galton’s 1855 work (although the two are very different in content):

by collecting the scattered experiences of many such persons in various circumstances, collating them, examining into their principles, and deducing from them what might fairly be called an “Art of Travel.”  

In the section On the Road, Potts’ travel experiences come into their own.  Vagabonding contains a wealth of practical advice covering issues such as  health while travelling, cross cultural interaction, what to expect when setting out travelling, and advice on socially and environmentally responsible travel.  It also helps to address angst at the difficulty of making choices in about places to visit, travellers’ ennui, forming good travel ‘habits’,  and how to deal with pitfalls and annoyances on (and off) the road.  

Despite the level of detail and the wide range of on and offline resources and tip sheets contained in Vagabonding, no advice manual can be 100% comprehensive; every seasoned traveller could add their own tips and in any event, as Potts notes, “neophyte blunders” are just part of the experience.  Nevertheless there is plenty here for anyone new to travel to get started and more than enough advice to remind more seasoned travellers of their own experiences.  It had me wistfully thinking about my own travels and itching to start another journey.  

One of the charms of Vagabonding is that Potts approaches all of this without being condescending, retaining a modesty and humility when talking about his own experiences and with a dry sense of humour, including taking the time for a side swipe at the “pseudo-counter-culture” of ‘anti-tourists’ which many ‘independent’ travellers seem keen to embrace.  

Vagabonding is something of a contemporary classic and is now in at least its tenth reprint (although Potts modestly acknowledges that the print runs are not large).  At the start of Vagabonding, Potts recalls finding a book by Ed Buryn in a used bookstore in Tel Aviv that helped him consolidate and affirm his own ideas about travel.   Should Vagabonding ever go out of print, I can’t help feeling that one day, somebody else will start a book about long term travel with a similar anecdote about how somewhere, in a second hand bookshop they found a book by this guy called Rolf Potts…    

Watch Rolf’s DO lecture on his vagabonding philosophy: 

You can listen to Rolf in conversation with Christine Maxfield on the Compassmag podcast, When in Roam, here or read Frank Bures’ profile of Rolf for Poets & Writers here

Check out Rolf Potts’ website at 

Essay: Rolf & the Report of Wenamun

Who was the first great traveler of literary history?…

…Rolf Potts asks in this article about one of the oldest recorded travelogues.

The incomplete travelogue, written on papyrus, was found in Egypt in 1890.  It recounts the misadventures of a priest’s travels form Thebes to Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) almost 3,000 years ago.  

The surviving travelogue is brief and Rolf Potts tells the story with the help of his 14 year old nephew.  

The result is an amusing comic strip which has more in common with Asterix the Gaul than the heroics of Odysseus, while the abrupt ending of Wenamun’s misadventures is used to suggest something a bit more Carry on Cleo than a serious diplomatic mission.   

The comic strip is a more engaging way of discovering Wenamun’s travels compared to the available, brief translations.  This is fitting because, as Rolf points out, Wenamun’s travels are not of mythic proportions and are closer to most people’s experience of travel which, instead of as adventurers and heroes, is more often as “novices, improvisers, and sometimes, fools”.