Lessons from Bootstrap Backpacking
17 May 2015

Lessons from Bootstrap Backpacking

The title of this post may conjure up images of a sun-seasoned traveller.

He strides down a dirt road somewhere exotic: sure steps in a double-knotted pair of sturdy leather boots that have, and will continue to take him,  down many paths in many lands.

However, ‘Bootstrapping’ is a term one comes across often in Berlin, and many other metropolitan hubs.

The word comes from the 19th century saying  ‘to lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps’, or in other words, to do something impossible.  In time, it came to mean ‘starting a self-propelling process without external input’, or ‘damn well doing it yourself’.

This is important in the start-up world, where entrepreneurs have co-opted bootstrapping to mean building your business without outside investors, using personal funding and careful re-investment of revenue.

It’s a philosophy I’m familiar with as a freelancer;  I started out on my own funds and work daily to grow my business with the income, experience and connections gained while doing so.

I’ve had to learn how to keep it lean, saving both time and money, but I also have the independence to do it my way.

Where exactly am I going with this?

Well, that same philosophy can be applied to travelling and for those willing to give it a try, a minimalistic approach to hitting the road can make for a liberating experience, healthier bank balance and help develop your overall bootstrapping skills.

Which gets us to today’s story.

Last month I headed off for 12 days of unadulterated travel. The destination is not really important, but suffice to say it was warm. Pretty warm.

Somewhere pretty old. And pretty warm.

Somewhere pretty old. And pretty warm.

To my horror, the airline wanted to charge me roughly a third of my entire airfare to take checked-in luggage.

Which was my cue to say “hell no”. Incidentally, I had recently picked up a cute, 15-litre backpack from the Kathmandu outdoor store in New Zealand.

12 days, 15 litres; challenge accepted.

While I could have taken a much larger carry-on backpack (any digital nomads or travellers have recommendations here, by the way?), I was keen to experiment by going as minimal as possible. Bootstrapping.

Clothes could be washed on the way, with four shirts, including a light collared shirt, shorts/swimming gear, underwear, a hooded sweater and one pair of pants. All tightly rolled.

Add to that one micro-fibre towel.  Sand shoes. Hat. Basic toiletries, padlock, notebook. Small paperback book.

Attached to the bag: a Nalgene bottle & carabiner, light-weight jacket folded into its own pocket pouch, ring scarf.

For electronics, I was brutal. My camera and spare battery would come, but everything else except my smartphone and charger stay at home.

That's everything.

That’s everything.

At Berlin Tegel Airport, feeling naked carrying the little bag, I skipped luggage and check-in lines and breezed right through security to the waiting lounge.

At the other end, I passed immigration and walked straight out the door into the hot evening, and the coming days of beaches, amusingly-shaped sunburns and hassle-free exploration.

Did I miss the extra gear I might have taken had I paid for luggage?

Not in the slightest. Every morning, I would quickly repack my gear and take everything with me.

No fussing about leaving my bag at the hostel, paying for train station storage or being stuck for what I needed while out and about.

Heck, I even worried less about my stuff since it was with me, there was less of it and I knew exactly where everything was stashed.

Having avoided the dastardly baggage fees of budget airlines, how could I further apply the bootstrapping philosophy?

On arrival, I was lucky enough to be hosted by a friendly local fellow through Couchsurfing for a few nights and while it certainly saved further on travel costs, the invaluable part was getting an insider perspective in a new country and meeting his friends and family.

Even if you can’t stay with someone, people are often happy to meet up and show you why they love their home — and will want to hear all about life where you come from! Ditch expensive guidebooks, see your own version.

For those not quite ready to make the jump to hanging out with complete strangers, get a taste of the local scene by taking a ‘free walking tour’ operated in many cities, by companies like Sandemans New Europe.

The guides are usually great and willing to share advice on where to go and what to see after the tours.

Need to do a little work while on the road?

Instead of shelling out for a quiet hotel room or buying endless coffees in cafes, check out options for stopping by in a co-working space for the day.

There are heaps of apps to help you find somewhere, and again, you get to meet like-minded locals.

Later, I spontaneously travelled with some other kind locals I met, something I would not have had the flexibility to do had I left a big bag stored in a hostel.

I was also able to wash my clothes while I stayed with them, but nevertheless, it would have been easy to stop by a laundromat for a few hours when needed.

Eating was easy to bootstrap; I ate cheap and delicious street food, enjoyed the atmosphere, tastes and unfamiliar fragrances of markets and if that failed, ate like the locals by picking up cheap local specialties at the supermarket. Hostels often provided a simple breakfast, included in the already cheap cost.

Perhaps you’re a foodie who prefers restaurants?

The amount of money you’ve already saved by this point will help make up for eating out and the recommendations you’ve no doubt garnered while meeting locals will pay off with authentic fare at less-than-touristic prices.

SONY DSC

Even arriving home was a treat.

Were you ever that person who delayed unpacking their suitcase for days when tired and readjusting to normal life? Time is money and it makes it quick and easy when all you have is a small backpack to upend.

Lessons learned?

I can be somewhat chaotic with clothes and my gear generally explodes everywhere when I stay somewhere overnight, so next time I would invest in compression sacks to keep everything in place and compact.

Also, while the freedom of exploring with everything I needed in a light, compact backpack was incredible, it was almost too tight to fit anything else. This is fine for short get-aways or warm climes, but I’ll be looking out for a bigger carry-on backpack so I can fit my laptop for remote working or more clothes for when I end up travelling somewhere a bit cooler.

However, the most important thing I learned is that minimalistic, bootstrapped travelling can be easily achieved.

It feels great, is liberating rather than restricting, saves you money you can use on other things and gives you confidence to apply such bootstrapping principles in other areas of your professional or home life.

Now I have that off my chest, what can other tips can bootstrapping backpackers add to the list?

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About the Author:Joe Dodgshun

Berlin-based Kiwi writer in innovation communication. Inspired by social enterprise, science and tech for good, responsible travel and climate action. Sharing the inspiration through journalism and brand storytelling.

4 Responses to Lessons from Bootstrap Backpacking

  1. Joe!

    This is sooo true!

    I recognise the feeling. That day in South Africa that this person took everything from me out of our car. At first I was really confused and upset, but the next day I actually felt relieved. I had nothing to worry about anymore. Only the things I had with me on the day I left our car! That for sure learnt me a lesson, that you don’t need much to travel.

    I like your story!

    Ah yeah, maybe I will see you really soon! 😉

    • Hey there Ester, Im really impressed that you are able to take something so positive out of such a potentially depressing situation. We really don’t need much!

      Next time you’re in Berlin, it’s definitely time to swap travel stories 🙂

  2. I’m envious of you! 15 litres, really? I travel light but I definitely need much more than 15 litres. Something to learn from your post again. Brilliant story!

    P.S> I admire how you maintained the secret destination all along.

    • Thanks Amrita, it was almost too small… I’m looking into something a bit bigger, but regardless it was a good experience. I imagine it could be a little bit easier for a guy, but then again, I have a female friend who travelled for the entirety of last summer with an 18 litre backpack! The other story will come another time 😉

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