Living out of 2 backpacks: A 6-month retrospective
In January of this year, I set out for semi-permanent traveling with only two* backpacks: A Goruck GR1 26L, and a Goruck GR2 40L. Prior to setting out I had done a -lot- of research, and made a detailed spreadsheet (down to the gram) of what I’d be taking. It’s not too bad I think, although the gorucks are more weighty than I’d like.
Including a daily bag. See EDC below.
I hate checking in luggage and dealing with carousels or lost luggage, and traveling with heavy roller luggage is not an experience that I want to have ever again. So I want to travel light. However, I also want to maintain a respectable fashion level at the same time. Some people can live with one outfit or very few items- I cannot. So bear that in mind.
I travel to countries at any time of the year for extended periods of time, so I need to pack for freezing winter as well as hot and humid summer.
I travel with three pairs of shoes. That isn’t too much, for me. YMMV. As much as I’ve tried to find one, there doesn’t seem to be a shoe that is good at everything– wearing daily, hiking, and still looking sharp. Every shoe that supposedly does this, that I’ve seen so far, has been ugly.
Although I would like to only have one backpack, it’s just not feasible with my tech + clothes. And I think that’s okay. If I fly, my 26L goruck still fits under my plane seat and the 40L goes overhead. It definitely is more annoying to have to hold a backpack while traveling but I simply wouldn’t enjoy traveling at all with only one backpack’s worth of items.
Initially I wore my redwing iron rangers + outlier slim dungarees + wool & prince work shirt combos more often, but I slowly transitioned to a more relaxed streetwear look. Then I typically wore my nike free runs or common projects, nike or adidas tapered sweats, and a plain tshirt or long sleeve shirt. This was great in Korea since streetwear is a common aesthetic there, but in Japan I felt like a bit of a slob, woefully underdressed compared to the ubiquituous salaryman look there.
If I stayed there longer I would probably go back to a red wings + chinos + collared shirt look or even wear suits daily. I actually really like wearing suits. Summer or winter, it doesn’t matter. But wearing suits daily while living out of 2 backpacks…? Now that would be a challenge (maybe for a future trip..?).
Making friends was fairly easy as I went to a language exchange. Unlike most exchanges which are unstructured (i.e. you walk up to random people at a bar or sit down at a cafe), MingleCup assigns people to each other in groups of 3 and rotates them every 30 minutes. As a result I was able to get high quality conversations with people. I made a handful of good friends and hung out with them often during my time in Korea. I also knew some people already since I ran a Korean-English exchange near the University of South Carolina.
By far the thing I miss the most about Korea is its food. I ate out all the time since the local food was so good and cheap, and I took some cooking lessons too! Once I got back to the states I found a local Korean market and I get a jar of kimchi every two weeks.
Unlike the US, mom and pop restaurants are ubiqituous. It’s hard to walk anywhere without there being some sort of local 똑볶이, 김밥, 김치밥 etc joint nearby. When I was lazy, I used the Shuttle app to have food delivered to me. Korea has delivery drivers everywhere on mopeds, sometimes taking orders for multiple places. It’s also possible to get groceries delivered in around 1 day, but since I was traveling from airbnb to airbnb I didn’t really want to deal with that.
Japan was much more difficult for me since, well, I don’t speak the language very much.
The biggest challenge of working remotely was the time difference. Our 9am daily standups became 11pm/10pm(with DST) for me. I had to find an airbnb where I was able to have these meetings without disturbing anyone. Which basically meant I had to find a whole apartment through airbnb.
My company is 100% remote so other than that and using a laptop-based workflow it wasn’t that big of a change.
In my first month I visited four different airbnbs since I didn’t want to lock myself in before visiting. I rented a room in 합정 [Hapjeong] for almost 4 weeks. 합정 is a nice central spot, close to 홍익입구역 [Hongik University], 신촌 [Sinchon], and 이대역 [Ehwa Women’s University]. It has the green (6호선) and brown (2호선) lines which make getting around 서울 [Seoul] pretty easy. The wework I went to, 을지로3-가 [Euljiro 3-ga], is on the green line as well.
After that the host went away on a trip so I had to find a new place. I negotiated with a host to stay from March to June in 마포구 [Mapo-gu], near 마포구청역, which is the western side of Seoul above the Han river. It was a quiet neighborhood with a lot of families and children, and I enjoyed the solitude at night. It was only ~15 minutes away from 합정, so getting around via public transportation was still fine.
From what I saw airbnb was more expensive in Japan. I stayed at a hostel through hostelworld.com near Golden Kai in Shinjuku for about 5 days, then I stayed in Yokohama, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. Golden Kai… visiting dozens of small, intimate bars was a hell of an experience. When I visit Japan again I’m definitely going to visit more bars at Golden Kai.
Note that if you’re planning to stay longer at a bar in Golden Kai, it’s definitely worth it to pay the cover charge. My uncle and I just wanted to visit as many bars as possible–we found one that was metal themed and had about 12 people in a space meant more for like 6-8. It was incredible!
I chose Yokohama due to the Shinkansen station. I had no idea it had a sizable Chinatown (and lots of tourists). Somewhat ironically, Hiroshima was serene and beautiful. I think it’s my favorite of all the places I stayed at. Fukuoka was also quite nice. It and Hiroshima are much more laid-back than Osaka or Tokyo.
I wore all of the shoes I took (redwing iron ranger boots, black/gray nike free runs, common projects). I also bought a 4th pair of red vans old skools. I like shoes, gimme a break.
Next time I would probably take my black wolverine 1k mile boots, the red old skools, and the nike free runs. The common projects are holding up excellently though–I just maintain them with rinsing and brushing with soap.
Since dyers aren’t common in Korea my merino wool clothes worked out great. Seven pairs of boxerbriefs was a good usage to space taken up ratio. Six or less would’ve required washing way too often.
One reason why I love Korea and Japan is not needing to own a car. Parking is annoying, insurance is expensive (particularly for me as an 18–25 year old male), and I can’t use my phone while driving. I find taking the bus or subway to be a zen-like experience where I can meditate or listen to a podcast. It lets me stretch my legs after sitting all day on my computer. (I almost always stand, unless I’m tired or the ride is 65+ minutes).
Compared to Korean, Japan’s railway lines are much more convoluted. Companies own different lines so your train may change colors while you’re still riding in a car. A card that works in Tokyo (like Suica) may not work in Osaka–at least it didn’t for me as of March 2019. Korean lines have a color and number. Green line (2 line) is much easier to remember and to refer to than Japan’s Ginza line, Marunouchi line, etc.
In Korea you can take any bus or subway line with a T-Money card, available at nearly every convenience store. Each station generally serves 1-2 lines and has markings on how to easily exit or transfer. However I was able to put my Suica card in my iphone’s Wallet app and tap my phone at the turnstiles in Japan. I’m not sure if T-Money cards support this yet.
Most, if not all, Korean stations have public restrooms that are cleaned regularly. A lot of places that I stayed in Korea at had older toilets and plumbing, so these restooms are gifts from God; resplendent beacons of hope.
Korea’s green line gets very crowded at 6pm due to employees and students returning home. Traveling home from 여의도 was the only time in Korea that I got shoved on the train as part of people packing in. 8am on the Marunouchi line in Japan was similar except there were people pushing quite aggressively. I always travel now with a mask on the subway in case the train becomes that crowded.
This is where the Goruck bags aren’t that great. They’re huge, especially the GR2! I would never use either as daily bags with commuting on trains or busses. I specifically packed a day bag for this reason. Of course if you drive everywhere in the US like I do in South Carolina, the GR2 works just great in your passenger seat.
A lot of subway stations in Korea are connected to underground malls. Some of them are enormous! Vendors hawk wares like food, clothes, cosmetics, power adapters, and more.
Compared to Korea’s KTX, Japan’s Shinkansen lines are insanely expensive. I don’t know how KTX is so cheap but you can get from 서울 [Seoul] → 부산 [Busan] in ~2.5 hours for ~$55. The 무궁화 line is even cheaper, although much slower at ~4 hours. Each KTX train car has room at the end to store some luggage, and overhead racks.
I don’t know if the Green cars in the Shinkansen are worth the steep price increase. The extra space was nice though. I actually found the atmosphere on the KTX to be quieter than the Shinkansen.
If you bought a JR Pass you have to stand in line at a Shinkansen hub station and request your tickets, which can be done up to ~1 month in advance. This can take over 45-60 minutes at peak times. Honestly it’s not a good experience for foreigners–the only people who are allowed to buy the pass. You cannot buy the pass inside of Japan, you must purchase it abroad now (as of September 2019).
Otherwise you can book tickets via the Shinkansen app. With KTX you can use the app or website until ~30 minutes before departure. For that or standing tickets you need to talk to a ticketing agent at the station. Standing tickets have a whopping ~85 cents (1,000원) discount.
The biggest issue I faced was loneliness. All of my college friends moved back home anyway but I did miss my family.
What I didn’t expect was missing out on… americans/westerners. Rather, I missed having people around that I shared roughly the same culture with, people that spoke English fluently (at distinguished or almost native level). I only made a couple foreigner friends at the language exchange because foreigners were always matched with korean locals.
I fixed this by going to 이태원 [Itaewon] and 용산 [Yongsan] more. These are the foreigner areas in Korea, due to the American military base nearby. These areas have lot of music events and foreign food if you get homesick. I also went to a few programming meetups through meetup.com which were comprised of almost entirely foreigners.
The other slightly annoying issue was my space, or lack of it. Not having an office in particular. At home I use two desks: one for my monitors & computer, the other for writing and any other tinkering.
Going from two 27" 1440p monitors to a macbook pro was a bit rough.
If I went back to Korea for more than 3 months I would need a space with a decent desk.
I forgot to bring a pin-enabled credit card. Whoops! I needed to withdraw cash occasionally for a few things, mainly the T-Money subway/bus transit cards cannot be refilled via card. Thankfully I received a new pin-enabled card quickly and my family was able to ship it to a Korean friend of mine.
Other than those issues I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Korea.
It’s no secret that I love these bags. A lot. They were purchased with the 25% off military discount, before goruck started raising their prices. As of the time of this article, I can no longer recommend goruck. The GR2 is nice, but not $500 nice. If you have access to the military discount, wait until black friday and stack the deals to get a reasonable price. Jason McCarthy wrote a blog post about moving some production to Vietnam, so maybe the state of goruck in 2020 will be better.
These bags feel virtually indestructible. The way it sits on my back feels great, even with added weight. A big selling point for me was the clamshell style opening–it makes packing a million times better for me. The tradeoff is if you pack a lot of clothes, etc, you’ll need packing cubes to keep everything nice and tidy. I use Eagle Creek regular and compression packing cubes, but just about any brand should do.
The thing with gorucks is that I somehow always manage to reorganize and fit more stuff in–which is great if you pick up stuff while traveling. It also makes it easy to pack way too much stuff. C’est la vie.
I really wish I could recommend these bags but the prices are too steep. There are other good quality bags that aren’t so prohibitively expensive.
This is a great day bag, but for more weight or longer durations I would always choose a goruck. I use this as a daily bag with my laptop, tech gear, and journals.
Organization is convenient with all the various pockets available. The rolltop makes finding stuff easy, and I can toss in some longer groceries.
The main issue I have is with the side zipper that opens into the main compartment–it gets stuck on the inner fabric every other time I use it. It’s not a huge deal because I can still just open the rolltop, but it would’ve been nice to have that for quick access.
Items that almost made it here were the glove liners and the coal beanie. I only used them twice while hiking 북한산 (백은대) and 버머사 in March.
I only used the patagonia torrentshell a few times. Generally when it was raining I just found shelter or didn’t go out.
This shirt showed my nipples too easily. The w&p wool shirts are a bit finer in general but they work in darker colors.
I added these at the last moment before I left for the airport, hence they’re not in the spreadsheet. They took up a fair bit of space and were cotton so they were annoying to dry.
In retrospect I should have used those more. I found a more comfortable pair from jcrew while I will be taking with me on future trips.
Talk about a waste of time and money researching gear that I never used. Sigh. I’ve used it a few times since I came home, but in general cameras are firmly in the NOT WORTH IT category for me now.
It pains me to say that as I grew up using a nikon d200/d300 with my dad, but the truth is that my iphone X’s camera is plenty sufficient. The new iphone’s camera looks great, and I imagine the one after that will have even better cameras.
This was worthless at first because Korean outlets are recessed, so it didn’t fit. On my first day back in Korea I had to find a hardware store and bought two cheap adapters.
Then at home I daisy-chained the card adapter to the cheap adapter. Hey, it worked.
In Japan I daisy-chained it in reverse with the cheap adapter to plug in my 3-prong mac charger. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Next time I travel, I may very well take Japanese/Korean versions of the macbook pro cable to not deal with this headache. If they don’t take up too much weight/space of course.
I got tired of trying to make my way through a Korean history book. I had the mentality of "finish one book, then read another" but this doesn’t pan out so well for information-dense books.
Instead, now I read what I feel like reading. I’m in the progress of Pro Git, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Korea’s Place in the Sun now.
I like my kindle quite a lot. One of the pains of traveling is not really being able to have books around me like I do in my office. Next time I’ll have some more interesting books to read.
Keep in mind even with these additions I was still able to travel with everything I originally packed. It really was just a matter of re-organizing. Goruck backpacks always astound me with how much I can fit if I get creative.
I decided to get the nikes after trying them out in a store. The tech fleece is lighter than expected but takes forever to dry. (It’s not common to have a dryer in Korea). The jordan dri-fits are amazing because they’re so light, but unless I’m running in them I tend to pair them with the smartwool base layer.
F.Illuminate plain sweatshirt, grey
F.Illuminate plain sweatshirt, tan
F.Illuminate is a Korean brand. I found these sweatshirts in a random store in 신촌역. They’re nice and simple, no logos. They became my main staples with the sweatpants mentioned earlier.
I initially bought this to use with Duet as an external monitor, but it’s quite laggy. So I was disappointed at first but then I realized it’s pretty nice to use when I’m not programming or writing. Specifically, drawing with Procreate is fantastic. I study kanji through an Anki deck on this if I don’t use my laptop, and I can put on netflix in the background while cooking or cleaning.
However I despise taking notes on the ipad, or any other digital device I’ve tried. Only pen and paper work for me and how I process things. I really tried using GoodNotes 5, but I never want to wrestle with a tool or its UI while I’m trying to write down my thoughts. If I have to take digital notes, I would just use vim.
Stupid goodreads 5 issues I had:
The stylus kept on changing to eraser mode randomly.
I wanted to study kanji by writing 1 character ~50 times, so I thought ``surely goodnotes can handle resizing a textbox''. Andrew, you utter fool. Resizing a textbox causes the character to become clipped for no discernable reason.
Goodnotes’ saving grace is with annotating PDFs… once I save them in the right format to my phone, of course.
ProCreate is great but there’s a PEBKAC issue. I don’t find myself often sitting down to just… draw. I should fix that.
This watch is absolutely gorgeous. I saw it while walking around in Yodobashi Camera and was immediately transfixed.
Let me start off with saying I am not a snob about writing tools. I like rollerball pens (like these ones) just as much as I like niche fountain pens. Now, with that out of the way:
Sailor Pro Gear Slim - Mustard, Fine Nib
I tried out a Mustard Sailor Pro Gear Slim at Kingdom Note in Japan, and I was blown away. I love writing with this pen. It’s from Sailor’s Vegetable Collection, which seems to be no longer available on their website as of 9/19/2019.
Platinum 3776 Century, Fine Nib
I tried this one out at Kindome Note as well and enjoyed how it wrote. It is a bit finer than the mustard Sailor so I use it a lot for kanji practice.
TWSBI Eco Demonstrators x2, Bright Green/Red, F/EF Nib
I found a small fountain pen store in Korea and got these for fun. The F is too wide for kanji practice but I like the extra-fine.
Kindom Note Blue
Kobe Inks - Ginza Itoya Sepia
Kobe Inks - Blue
Sailor 100th Anniversary Collection - Yamaburo Red
Is traveling with these a pain? Oh yes. In the future I’ll probably only use uniball rollerballs, staedtler pigment liners in 0.3mm, and my pelikan souveran rollerball.
wake up between 8 and 9:30am
brew coffee, get ready, do chores if needed
eat (often at a local restaurant since local Korean food is healthy, tasty, and cheap)
decide to take a bus ~35 mins to wework, stay home, or go to a local cafe
work (taking breaks with a pomodoro timer)
study korean and kanji or go to a language exchange
(occasionally) relax at a pc cafe for a bit before heading home
The downside of working + diligently studying [Korean vocab and Japanese kanji] + working on personal programming projects + writing is my time just magically disappears. I try to talk to people on HelloTalk for language practice but I find myself going days without responding. The older I get the harder it is to summon the energy to respond to people.
Wallet, phone, watch (always), small notebook (that can fit in my pocket) + uniball pen.
Arcteryx jacket if it’s cold/rainy, patagonia torrentshell in my backpack if it it might rain. I make sure to always have the pen + small notebook in the jacket pockets.
The following items are if I’m working, writing, etc.
For EDC both gorucks are far too bulky. They’re fine in the US since I drive everywhere, but have you ever been on a crowded train in Asia at rush hour?
So I use an Invisible Rolltop by OPPOSETHIS, which packs into the GR2 when I fly. I chose this for three reasons:
As mentioned, the gr1 was too bulky for daily use.
I wanted a sleek, minimal backpack that doesn’t scream ``I am a traveler/tourist''.
The bag fits my laptop + expands via the rolltop if I pick up some groceries, etc.
My programming machine. The beating heart and core of all my operations. I got a quality leather sleeve to protect it while moving around.
I like macs (2015 and prior) due to their build quality and reliability. I had a thinkpad t430 but it was insanely bulky and I got tired of ``configurability''. Give me a machine that works without incessant tinkering and workarounds. On my desktop at home I run Debian Stretch because I got tired of Arch’s constant annoyances. My home server runs FreeNAS–running FreeBSD without a hitch on a laptop would be ideal.
I may upgrade to a Lenovo Carbon in a year or two, but we’ll see. Maybe apple will release a non-shit macbook pro in 2020.
I cannot travel with out this. All my language notes, doodles, thoughts, tasking, and everything else go in here. Initially thought 121 pages for the softcover was too little but it took me a very long time to complete the journal.
Since then I’ve purchased two more hardcovers, grid style, and three more softcovers, dotted style, for various uses. I’m not a fan of blank or lined paper.
I saw this while traveling in Japan and thought it would be neat to have one spot for a daily log. I did this in my leuchtturm but it got buried by my notes and such. I write down small tidbits of what went on in the day. The format is such that each page has 3 years on it, so I’ll be able to see my past self’s activities and thoughts.
The problem is remembering to write in it.
I carry pretty much all of my pens in my backpack since they take up little space. I pick up fountain pens in Japan but I wouldn’t travel with them. Ink is a huge pita.
These are like magic for public transportation. In cafes and at WeWork they’re okay, they cut out a lot of stuff but don’t really stop conversations or music. I just crank up rain sounds or music. I had to buy the lightning adapter as well–I avoid losing it by always packing the qc20s in their case with it when I’m done.
The bose over-ear canceling headphones are way better for cafes and sound quality but are also much bulkier. The taotronics soundsurge bluetooth headphones are considerably cheaper yet still good in quality. Next time if I have the space, I may travel with my taotronics. Personally I despise wearing over-ear headphones in public.
This has saved my butt a few times when my phone died while traveling or when I simply forgot to charge it the night before. Heck, I even use it when I’m not traveling abroad.
I study kanji every single day and I do it on specific grid paper with boxes sized for kanji. I keep them all since I want to see my progress, but at some point I’ll digitize them.
I printed 50 pages before I did the math. 200 boxes per page x 50 pages means it’s going to take me forever to use these up.
Acts as an external monitor or replaces the macbook if I’m not doing much beyond studying kanji or grammar.
Helps prevent those nasty neck and back problems. I don’t know if the price was worth it, but it’s been rock solid.
I DO NOT use this at cafes. I’m not that guy. I use this at WeWork/coworking spaces or at home only.
The price is definitely worth it. This mouse is freaking amazing.
Update: One of my coworking friends recommended the logitech vertical mouse. I LOVE it. It’s not as packable as the arc touch mouse but it feels amazing to use all day.
Look at how thin this keyboard is! Unfortunately, it’s too good to be true. It’s so thin it’s mushy as a result, requiring more force to register presses. After a day of typing my fingers hurt. I gave it to my uncle and he keeps it in his car for occasional use while he travels across the US.
Go to well-run language exchanges. They can be quite fun and you’ll meet locals who can give good recommendations for places to check out. Plus you can learn a thing or two about the local language which always helps. If physical exchanges aren’t your style you can try the HelloTalk or Tandem apps.
A lot of exchanges and other groups can be found on Meetup.
Look up customs and things not to do. This sounds obvious, but I got a bit cocky after living ~1.5 years in Korea, and made some embarrassing gaffes in Japan.
Don’t enter busses in Japan from the front.
Don’t just go to the ``must go to'' places. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes you end up just waiting for an hour when there’s probably a similar place nearby.
Pack extra deodorant if traveling to Korea. I seriously could not find it anywhere, aside from 이태원 [Itaewon] due to the huge foreign community there.
Negotiate the price down as much as you can on airbnb, especially if you’re looking for a longer stay.
Visit the airbnb before you book. You can always book a hostel for a week or so after you arrive, giving you time to check out some airbnbs.
Consider airbnb alternatives like booking.com, agoda, or local shared housing. Lately booking.com and agoda have been looking better than airbnb.
Bring along a light drawstring bag to use on the plane / in the airport so you don’t always have to dig into your bags.
Read the reviews of a hostel on something like hostelworld before booking. Hostels vary widely in atmosphere, and you should check if they have reports of bedbugs, etc.
Merino wool garments don’t really matter if all the places you travel to have washing machines. That said, they’re useful on long flights. Personally, I love my grey merino wool shirt and black longsleeve shirts.
Force yourself to go out and do things sometimes. In the moment it’s easy to get caught up and just want to chill, but I find myself wishing that I had hiked some more of Korea’s mountains and visited some more temples.
Get off the computer sometimes and walk around. I have a lot of memorable experiences just from deciding to walk around for a few hours without any destination in mind.
Use a money belt, which is not to be confused with a fanny pack.
Get travel insurance.
Given my fashion constraints my packing list is considerably bulkier than most lists that I’ve seen. Many people save space by bring as few clothes as possible–this is respectable too! It’s just not for me though.
I hope that some of the stuff here is of use to you.