Click the titles to read the article. Parts I, II, and III are narrative and gear analysis (and are members only), with comprehensive gear lists. All articles contain rich and evocative photography, with the photo essays (open to the public) using photos to tell their story.
Backpackers are all over the map when it comes to answering the question "What should I pack?" What lightweight set-up, then, can be used to travel around the world? Climate, budget, timeline all played a factor as we prepared to travel the world. In the end, our gear is nothing revolutionary, but it is affordable, practical, and works for our needs. Most importantly, our set-up is livable – this is all we have, day in and day out, for two years.
As most Americans tightened their belts during the economic crisis of 2009, we decided to allocate most of our savings to travel the world ultralight for two years. Danny’s contract at UC Davis Outdoor Adventures was ending just as I was graduating, so setting out on our world tour in September was a natural choice. In August, during a family reunion, we surprised our loved ones with a wedding under the Golden Gate Bridge. A few weeks later, we flew to Guatemala City, commencing our world-wide honeymoon.
In the seven months since that flight, we have traveled through Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Ecuador. Whether we are changing buses in a bustling metropolis, backpacking through a granite canyon, camping on a tropical island beach, or summiting a snowy mountain, one fact remains the same: our packs are smaller and lighter than the packs of fellow backpackers that we have met along the way. Their jealous looks, and sometimes direct inquiries, prompted us to write this article.
Latin America was the first destination on our round-the-world itinerary. Kristin and I intended to travel there for only six months, but instead stayed for nine. We were quickly improving our Spanish language skills, we were staying in our budget because overland travel was cheaper than flying to another continent, and we were tempted by the seemingly endless trekking opportunities in the Andes. We experienced all of Latin America’s seasons during this nine-month period, allowing us to evaluate our gear in almost every imaginable environment.
The most unpredictable weather we faced was in southern Patagonia in November and December, which was spring in the southern hemisphere. We experienced high winds, sunny skies, and several bouts of sleet and snow, sometimes all in one day. The coldest weather we saw was -8 C (17.6 F) at night in Peru and Bolivia in May and June when camping above 4,000 meters (13,125 feet). Monsoon-like storms were the daily norm in the “winter” rainy season in Central America. The hottest conditions were in Brazil and the Colombian coast during the summer.
We analyze our gear choices: the stand-outs, the failures, and the brilliant yellow footwear. Included in this article is a map pinpointing our travels for this leg of the journey, as well as two comprehensive gear lists and photos from across the continent.
Kristin and I were very pleased with the gear we selected for our nine-month tour of Latin America. We were happy with the overall performance of our set-up, and proud of the low weight and small size of the two backpacks containing our entire life belongings. However, when planning for the next leg of our journey, a three-month gallivant through Russia, we made some rookie mistakes: we packed gear that was starting to show wear, swapped things that worked for things we had not field tested, and brought more than a few items that we never used.
Despite some poor gear choices, numerous gear failures, and occasional trouble with the authorities, we survived three amazing months wandering through Russia. We completed six backpacking trips all over the vast country. We highlight both the unique beauty of the landscape and the problems we encountered on each trip. Our gear list is detailed at end of the article, where we also specify the changes we made from our Latin America Gear List.
While down-climbing through a steep, rocky ravine on our way to Laguna Jurau, I silently cursed our maps. Yes, “maps,” as in the plural of “map.” We brought two maps while circuiting the Cordillera Huayhuash Range. The first was a free map the size of an index card which showed the trails we wanted to use. The second was a 1:50000 topographical map which (teasingly) marked the passes, but not every trail over the passes. As we descended the second pass of the day (Punta San Antonio, at 5,010 meters), the trail grew fainter and fainter as the terrain steepened. It was five o’clock, and the sun would set in an hour. We could gamble that successfully navigating through the scree-filled ravine would lead us safely to the valley. Or, we could pitch our tent on the sloped mountain, 300 meters below the nearest water source, and look for the trail down to the valley in the morning. If there was another trail.
Rarely do I think about taking photos while hiking. No photo has ever been able to fully capture the joy I experience in nature. Photographs, however beautiful they might be of the landscape, fail to arouse the overwhelmingly positive sensory assault I have while hiking. When I look back at photos taken during backcountry trips, my memories of the events are colored. Instead of recalling a variety of feelings and views, sounds and smells, my vibrant memories get intertwined with these static snapshots.
How I manage to backpack with Danny is somewhat of a mystery. His feeling about photography couldn’t be more opposite of mine. He is constantly breaking his stride to take photos, often asking me to stop with him and sometimes even pose. He can spend days organizing and editing photos once we return to civilization. Danny loves the wilderness just as much as I do, but also finds great joy in sharing our adventures with our friends and families.
Fifteen countries and more than a year later, I am grateful that Danny has encouraged me to be more open about photography. We have simply seen too much and experienced too much to store it all away in our fallible human memories. Every day of traveling is different, and the lack of monotony in daily life means we have little downtime to think, process, and store. I am happy that Danny encouraged me to stop and examine the petite beauty contained on a continent that I might not ever visit again.
What’s more ultralight than not carrying any pack at all? Such was my experience in Los Glaciares National Park in southern Argentina. Our bus to El Chaltén, the village inside the park, made a mandatory stop at park headquarters. After a briefing in English given by eloquent park rangers, which highlighted safety and Leave No Trace practices, we were already impressed. Yet afternoon storm clouds had covered all of the towering peaks in the distance, and we we were unable to see the legendary Fitz Roy.
In the park office Danny and I studied the many detailed maps in different colors, dimensions, and resolutions. There was one large loop in the park, but one-fourth of the terrain crossed over the Patagonian Ice Field. We were not equipped for such an expedition. The rest of the trails mostly emanated from the main trailhead that started in town. We decided to make a base camp an hour hike from El Chaltén. From there, we would do day trips to the many glaciers. Additionally, resupplying from town would be quick and easy.
Sapphire Dyneema Gridstop and a flash of bright yellow. The sight was so familiar to me, yet so unexpected. I elbowed Danny in the ribs. “Look, that guy has my same backpack!” I whispered and surreptitiously pointed three rows ahead.
As we funneled off the modern bus and lined up at immigration, I made sure to navigate towards the owner of this pack, as he was certain to be an interesting guy. We were 20 kilometers outside of Puerto Natales, crossing into Chile from Argentina, on our way to Torres del Paine National Park. Danny and I had been traveling for almost 3 months in Latin America and had yet to see the GoLite brand.
“I love your backpack!” I said to this tall, smiling stranger. He introduced himself as Steve, and we soon learned that he had finished thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail a few months earlier. As we helped our new friend eat the bananas and oranges that customs’ officials wanted to confiscate from his GoLite Pinnacle, we exchanged hiking tales and talked gear. He was on his way to Torres del Paine as well.
Before you view these photos of Danny and I in the beautiful outdoors near Bariloche, Argentina and get that dreamy look on your face, let me share with you a secret that took me several months to learn on my own. Traveling for long periods of time, especially in the wilderness of foreign lands, may be romanticized in literature such as Lonely Planet and National Geographic. One truth seems to be missing from these tales of exotic peoples, tasty foods, and gorgeous landscapes: no matter how much your surroundings change, the person you are inside generally remains the same.
So, if you’re like me, and you already have strong opinions and preferences about, well, pretty much everything, traveling can be frustrating. I have to constantly remind myself to keep an open mind. It was nice taking a break from that effort in Bariloche, Argentina. It was the first place I found that reminded me of all of my favorite things from home: a large variety of local fruits and vegetables, super friendly people and a strong outdoor community, sunny weather, and endless opportunities to play in the wilderness. We stayed twice as long as we had originally planned, and even started dreaming of returning in winter.
One of the drawbacks of our contemporary lifestyle is how much time we spend in boxes. Our homes and offices have floors, ceilings, and walls set at ninety degree angles. To connect us to these stationary boxes, we often use wheeled boxes to travel over flat and gray roads. The paths we take are the most efficient routes, not the most aesthetically pleasing nor the most representative of the land. It is almost as if modern society is attempting to cover up and disconnect us from the earth that gives us sustenance, and, as all backpackers know, a deep satisfaction.
Backpacking is a way to free us from the boxes of our civilized lives. It is a way to connect us to the earth, to explore the terrain around us, to view the world from a different perspective. We climb mountains to answer the question "what does the world look like from up there?" We scale rocks that demand the use of all four limbs and leave us calloused, scraped, chafed, and bruised. We glide over snow for the pure joy of speed, while experiencing a world colored mostly in white. We enter forests and meadows to inhale the pleasant smells of trees and flowers, and to feel leaves brushing against our arms and grass tickling our ankles. We paddle to the middle of lakes to observe life on shore from a different angle and to feel the bobbing sensation that only rolling waves can create.
Kristin and I traveled through nine Latin American countries before entering Peru. In those seven months, we met many tourists who had already been to Peru, and more than a few raved about hiking in Colca Canyon. Honestly, I had never heard of this purported amazing trek in the deepest canyon in the world. I soon learned that Colca Canyon, at 4,160 meters (13,648 feet) from top to bottom, is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. However, there is no consensus on the “deepest” title, as there are a variety of methods to measure a canyon. There are a few canyons in the Himalayas and one other in Peru that some consider deeper. Regardless, Colca Canyon shot to the top of our list of must-see natural wonders.
Several years ago, I was apprehensive about introducing my outdoors-loving group of friends (which included Brady) to my new boyfriend, Danny. Although their personal interests were greatly aligned, they had different ways of manifesting their enthusiasm. Danny recited backpacking gear weights as if he spent nights awake, memorizing outdoor company catalogues. And, although my friends and I had explored Northern California, from Point Reyes to the Sierras, I suspected that on some of our backpacking trips the weight of our liquor exceeded Danny’s base pack weight.
Fast forward several years to the Cordillera Real in Bolivia, where my husband, Danny, my old friend, Brady, and I backpacked together for four days. The boys spent much time discussing Brady’s new lightweight gear and the latest advancements in ultralight material technology, while I tried to watch my footing despite frequently rolling my eyes.