Life on the road: a backpacker’s lesson in want vs. need

All long-term backpacking trips begin the same way. They begin with the chore of packing your life up into boxes for storage and selectively choosing what items are deemed worthy of the coveted space in your backpack. This process can be particularly eye opening. It’s a valuable lesson in want vs need.

Selecting what to bring with me on my RTW trip was a chore that I relished. I read and reread travel blog posts: lists of the essentials you need, lists of the things you think you need but don’t really need and how to stay fashionable on the road. Gone were the days when I brought old clothes with me to wear on backpacking trips. I learned my lesson there – pictures are forever. And when a trip is this long, it’s not just a trip anymore, it’s my life! For this reason and because I wanted to travel carry-on only, most of what I brought with me was newly purchased. Picking what to bring so that each piece was a versatile as possible was fun and definitely worth the time. For example, a well selected tank top can do time on the beach, in the gym and in bed! I’ve been very happy with what I brought. As for exactly what I bought and brought, that’s a whole other post.


My well loved Minaal backpack.

Once on the road, I had to resist the urge to shop. This was easy for me at first. I’m generally not big on tangible souvenirs. What was hard to pass up were the things unique (or uniquely affordable) to a country: tagine cookware in Morocco, leather and diamonds in Pakistan, spices in India, silk in Cambodia. . . the list really does goes on. Knowing that I literally could fit nothing more in my backpack worked for a while, but eventually I stared to get creative and found space I didn’t even know I had. Once I hit Thailand, the urge got too strong and I justified some new beachwear. In Vietnam, I succumbed to the thrill of getting a bespoke suit made. By this time, I’d accumulated enough stuff that I had to spread to two suitcases. Luckily not a problem for flights, since my initial bag still fit carry-on requirements.

Now that I’m setting up shop temporarily in New Zealand, the call of want vs need is feeling especially strong. I’ll be here for six months to a year and this feels much more like setting up a new home than being on a backpacking trip. Even though I’m working again, I’ve been asking myself plenty of tough questions in my quest to save as much money as possible for the rest of my trip.

Can I manage with one bath towel or should I buy two?
Two, cause my apartment is humid
Do I need Egyptian cotton sheets or can I live with this cotton/poly blend discounted set?
Discounted set will do
How many different outfits do I really need for six months of office work?
About two week’s worth
Do I need a warmer jacket for Auckland winter?
Nope, I’m Canadian
Do I need a proper full length mirror in my room or will this almost-full-length $30 mirror do?
See picture
Do I need fancy teas a la David’s Tea or can I live with grocery store brands?
A compromise – some of both to keep me from frequenting Starbucks


Almost-full-length mirror and outlet mall dress.

In some ways, the strictness with which I’m currently wielding my budget is tougher than back when I was a student. It’s really put into perspective what had become easy decisions for me. I used to have no problem justifying 800 thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets. Now I’m shopping only at sales, outlets and second hand stores. In Canada, I used to have serious trouble shopping second hand or even vintage. Now I’m seeing the value and beauty in someone else’s unwanted clothes. I’m less picky about exact style and more interested in something functional, flattering and affordable. I’ve also been inspired by a new friend who reminded me that reusing clothes is good for the planet.


Warm and pretty discounted sheets and duvet.

Surprisingly, given that I’m trying to buy only what I need in New Zealand and not splurge, I expect I’ll have trouble repacking and letting go of many items when I leave. I’ve managed to find affordable, quality pieces that suit my style and I already anticipate sending a package home to Canada on my way out.

Vietnam: the tailored suit experience in Hoi An

“So, this fabric is blue white and this one is off white?” I asked for the third time over the din of customers discussing look books.
My consultant was not amused, “I take you to workshop to see fabrics. You want?”
I shrugged my shoulders, surprised at this unexpected development, “Um, ok?”
“Stand up! Follow me, quickly!”

I can’t have been the only customer in the busy tailor shop to have trouble picking a fabric for my shirt, but I was the only one being hustled outside and down the block to examine the bolts of cotton in person. Despite my consultant’s apparent annoyance with my indecisiveness, she did a great job explaining the difference in possible suit detailing and made sure I understood what I was ordering.

I had a basic idea of what I wanted before I entered Kimmy’s tailor shop in Hoi An. Hugo Boss makes a great classic and I brought a few ideas and pictures with me. Turns out Kimmy’s had that covered. They had iPads full of pictures on hand for browsing various classic and not-so-classic looks. Being able to select a bright blue jacket lining and matching button hole stitching on the sleeves really upped my fun value of having a custom suit made.


Feeling great in my brand new suit

They did a great job working with my measurements, because everything fit really well off the bat. I only had a few requests for changes due to personal preference and they were all made with no complaints even when it required redoing the sleeves on both my jacket and my shirt.

I selected their recommended middle range fabric (a blend of wool, cashmere and silk) and it feels great on. I tested it for movement by squatting, sitting and reaching up.  Seems like it will wear well but time will tell.


Details of my custom suit made in Hoi An

I really enjoyed the whole experience and I feel like a million bucks in my new suit. Can’t wait to wear it. So next time you feel like suiting-up don’t forget to give me a call!

[Side note: the dialogue above is paraphrased and my consultant spoke English very well.]