When I started solo traveling a couple years ago, I became obsessed with techwear. Techwear is clothing that is “optimized” in some fashion. It uses fabrics that dry faster, breathe better, offer more stretch, more durability, etc. The brand that I became enamored with was Outlier. They offer Merino wool t-shirts that could be worn for days on end, shorts that can be used as swimming trunks, specialty button ups that are lighter than linen.
However, as I went on my first solo trip, I made a few observations. First, the clothing was not life-changing-ly, earth-shattering-ly better than my normal, pedestrian cotton shirts and cotton chinos. Oh sure, I could wear the shirts for 4 days on end. But did I want to? I could hand wash the pants and have them dry quickly, but I could also just spin dry them. Newsflash—washers and dryers exist in 95% of the world. Second, the clothing felt, well…wrong. Not that it was uncomfortable. Far from it, the clothing was extremely comfortable. But it just wasn’t what I wore at home. While Outlier puts a lot of effort into making the clothing look normal and not tech-y, the clothing felt less a fashionable garment and more an expensive, kinda dorky gadget.
When I made it back home, I took an inordinate amount of pleasure in wearing my normal, impractical clothing. A cotton oxford shirt and a pair of black chinos may not breathe as well, may not resist smells and stains as easily, but they were normal to me.
I was certainly not alone in this pursuit of optimization. Techwear is only a small subset of the traveling “hacks” that are peddled around the internet. People discuss the optimal places to go, using the optimal flight scheme and stopping at the optimal restaurants to eat. These optimizations are often quite useful; nobody should pay 600 dollars for an economy flight from New York to Paris. But at the same time, this optimization obsession lends an intensity, a certain level of stress to traveling that is not necessary.
For an example of this stress, simply go to a tourist heavy city; New York, Paris, Rome, etc. and look for a nuclear family, often American, rushing from attraction to attraction. The parents are attempting to stick to their strict timeline, sweating and stressing in the process. The children are tired and hungry, bored and confused at their panicking parents.
Why does this optimization cause so much stress and misery? Because the family is outside their baseline. They are sleeping in an unfamiliar place, eating unfamiliar food and demanding a far stricter schedule than they would ever consider at home. Now, for the short burst trips that Americans love, the weekend dashes in Paris or the week long European frenzy, this is perfectly fine. But past a few days and this system breaks down.
In programming, there’s a commonly cited quote from Donald Knuth that “premature optimization is the root of all evil”. These tricks of techware clothing, packed schedules and tourguide obsessions are the premature optimizations of traveling.
What’s the alternative? For this, we need to look far down under to Australia and New Zealand. Aussies and Kiwis travel for extremely long periods of time. A short trip for an Australian is maybe a month long. In basically every hostel I’ve stayed in, there’s been an Aussie or a Kiwi cooking. At first, I thought this was just out of frugality, and partially it is. But I recently realized that cooking allows them to eat something closer to home, bringing them back to their baseline. It’s comforting and sustaining at the same time.
Basically, to lessen stress while traveling, do what you like to do at home. For each of us, this is different. For instance, I don’t particularly like sightseeing as much as eating and wandering. So I don’t try to force myself into sightseeing just because I’m traveling. If you don’t like eating too much different food, eat food from home. If you want to bring a piece of clothing that isn’t super practical, but makes you feel at home, go for it1! There’s no way to “win” traveling. And if someone tries to judge your trip because you didn’t see site X or do activity Y, well fuck them. It’s your trip.
A Quick Coda on Backpacks
I’m very skeptical of the gigantic backpack that swings around like an oversized hump slamming into the poor people who veer into the wearer’s path. For a very niche, very specific trip, those backpacks are useful, say offroading in the jungles of Thailand. But if you’re doing a Interrail trip through Europe with the occasional bus, y’know what’s super handy? Wheels. I’ve spent far too much time sweating with a heavy fucking bag weighing me down, desperately trying to find the train station. A suitcase with wheels, while less “ooh look at me I’m an adventurer”, is much more maneuverable and ergonomic.
Huge backpacks are the perfect example of premature optimization in traveling. Unless you’re doing a trip that requires going to destinations without roads—mind you, not lack of paved roads, but lack of roads in general—then a suitcase will work just fine.
Honestly I suspect the backpacks are more for the self image of a brave adventurer, literally “backpacking” around the world. Great for Instagram, less great for your back.
Within reason of course ↩︎