I’m an under-packer by nature. I try to travel with one carry-on only (usually a backpack) — even when I’m leaving the country for a while and even when I’m traveling with my 3-year-old son. Sounds crazy, I know. And while it’s true this method has occasionally led me to seriously questionable hiking footwear (and definitely led me to 10 days in Scandinavia with only one pair of pants), for the most part, it is a truly liberating way to travel. Doing a one-backpack trip forces me to sit down and think about what I — and my son — truly need and what we can live with out. It almost turns last-minute packing an hour before the airport drive into a moving meditation on materialism and our existence as a human society… almost.
But even with the most minimalist of packing, I usually end up on a vacation with a decidedly un-minimalist schedule — and an overburdened frame of mind. There are hotels to book and tours to take and sights to see and reservations to make, not to mention inevitable souvenir shopping that completely undoes the whole one-backpack logic in the first place.
And after a week or so of that plus who knows how many flights/hours on the road? Well, I end up back home needing a vacation from my vacation. Sound familiar?
That’s why I decided it was time for me, the minimalist packer, to become and actual minimalist traveler — to plan a vacation that involved bringing, using, planning and doing as little as possible. Enter the plastic tiny house, a 170-square-foot energy-efficient home chilling (or rather, heating up) in a KOA campground in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. (It was designed by Tiny House Nation host Zack Giffin, NBD). Just by the nature of choosing this as my temporary home, I was already hopping on the minimalist bandwagon. This particular 170-square-foot and super-energy-efficient tiny house made of plastic is a testimony to how little we can use if we just think creatively (and a sink that feeds gray water directly into the toilet system doesn’t hurt).
That’s right. I headed to the Arizona desert in August to spend my vacation in 170 square feet with the bare necessities, no other humans and certainly no restaurant reservations. And just to make my minimalist vacation extra-official, I brought: one pair of shoes, six items of clothing (including underwear) and a toothbrush/toothpaste. And that’s it. And it was the best vacation I’ve taken in a long time.
So if you’re the type who thinks travel has to involve endless planning, scheduling, packing multiple suitcases, booking hotels, tours and dining options, think again. This is how deciding to take that minimalist vacation to a tiny house in the desert, packing essentially nothing, changed the game for this traveling mom.
Why you should take a minimalist vacation
That part’s a given. If you’re doing less, you’re spending less. Aim to spend on the bare-bones.
- Lodging: No hotels! Aim for an affordable Airbnb, or better yet, arrange a free home exchange through a site like Kid & Coe.
- Transportation: Bonus if you drive or take public transport to your destination rather than flying.
- Food: Groceries, not restaurant bills.
Leave the entertainment part of the budget at $0 — and see where it takes you.
It requires less planning beforehand
With an entertainment budget and schedule set at zero, you can save your at-home hours before the trip and those frantic last-minute Google searches for places to stay/eat/see. Instead, let your vacation “plans” involve walking out your door in the morning and seeing where your stroll takes you.
The getting-there part is way easier
Embarking on a six-hour (or 16-hour) flight is exhausting enough already. Do you really need to add multiple pieces of luggage and a trip to baggage claim to your already (literally) burdened shoulders? No. Pack only the essentials — and then remove five things from your bag before you go. You’ll be surprised what you can do without.
It forces you to be resourceful
I stand by the statement, “You’ll be surprised what you can do without.” That said, for my tiny house trip, I wildly under-packed — on purpose, of course — and in my minimization discovered two things I hadn’t packed it turned out I sorely missed, especially in the dry Arizona summer: a hair tie and lip balm. But you’d better believe I scavenged through that house to find an old elastic tag that I used to tie my hair up for the whole trip. Oh, and I absolutely put kitchen olive oil on my lips every night. #NoRegrets
It forces you to focus on yourself (for better or worse)
Guess what. When you’re alone in a tiny house in the desert (or a cabin in the woods or a yurt on the mountain or whatever your preferred solo-minimalist vacation locale may be), you cannot just keep busy and la-la-la your way through life and ignore whatever it is you really need/need to work on/need to give up. Your shit will rise up to the surface, and you will have to confront it. But hey, the only way out is through, baby.
I do want to note here that I don’t equate a minimalist vacation to “roughing it.” Any sort of camping/backpacking/what-have-you trip that involves trekking through the woods, setting up a tent, conjuring up a fire and all your meals and hauling ass to some dark bug-infested corner of the forest in order to “go to the bathroom” is all very admirable — but it’s not quite what I mean by minimalist. Because that shit involves work. Camping/backpacking, strangely like taking a fancy multi-hotel tour of Europe, does involve a lot of planning and preparing (isn’t that literally the Boy Scout motto?) and pretty much constant effort to keep that whole staying-alive-in-the-wilderness thing afloat.
For me, in this moment, I wanted a trip that still landed solidly in the vacation category of travel: somewhere warm and habitable with pre-appointed (indoor) lodgings and an actual toilet. You know, the basics that roughing it doesn’t quite provide. And I lucked out in that my tiny house was pre-stocked with some basic food as well: milk, coffee, eggs, butter. All of this is to say that this precise midpoint between roughing it and your typical vacation got me exactly where I wanted to get: the middle of the desert with absolutely nothing to do.
So, how do you take a minimalist vacation?
This is key both for planning-stress levels as well as pricing.
Pack light (duh)
See above re: items of clothing, toothbrush, sunscreen. I promise you can do it.
Don’t pack shoes — I mean it
This is my No. 1 packing tip for all forms of travel, but especially if you’re aiming for minimalism. You’re not going to a wedding here, nor are you climbing Everest. Whatever isolated locale you choose, plan to wear — not pack — one pair of sturdy, oh-so-comfortable footwear that will actually last you the whole week or however long you’re gone. If you’re heading to the hills, hiking boots. If you’re beaching it, Birkenstocks. As long as they’re comfy, who cares what they look like? Nobody will be looking at your feet anyway.
Get outside your comfort zone with food
Yes, sure, you have favorite meals and favorite recipes and favorite restaurants. But what’s something super-simple you can cook just for yourself literally every day for a week? Make yourself one big epic pot of soup and see how long it lasts or dive into the wondrous world of kitchari. It won’t be fancy, but you will be full. And just see how much brain space you end up with when you’re not thinking about meal planning every single day.
Move your body in new ways
This whole thing goes out the window if you sit in your tiny house like a rock for a week. You will not feel good if your minimalist vacation involves being horizontal the entire time. But no, you will not have access to SoulCycle or a hotel gym. So get creative. Take a walk, a hike, a run, a jump-around-the-lake-five-times. Try your hand at a solo at-home yoga practice even if you’ve only ever taken two classes before. Get in your body and see what feels good. Bonus points if you really see what feels good. You are on a solo vacation, after all.
Expect to go without
So, you’ve never gone a week without makeup? Or shampoo? What about deodorant? I see you cringing. But remember, this is your minimalist vacation. You are likely all alone — or as is so often my case, “alone” with a child in tow — and nobody cares about how your hair looks. Of course, this is not to say you should go a week without key prescription medication or brushing your teeth. But that hairdryer/concealer/five-step facial-moisturizing system? Leave it behind. And while you’re at it, see if you can leave your social media accounts behind too. I dare you.
Do pack one (tech-free) thing to “do”
Whether it’s that poetry book you’re reading (or writing!), a journal, a sketchbook or even your knitting, there will be times your mind needs a break from all that quiet time with itself. Give it one that will also fuel it.
For me, in my borrowed tiny house, the sheer lack of stuff to do — no tent-setting, fire-building, bear-repelling, or shit hole-scouting, but also no sightseeing, navigating, appointment-setting or museum-hopping — left me no choice but to face what I had come to face: myself. I wrote. I meditated. I walked. I cooked some eggs. I took the longest shower possible because, as opposed to my showers at home that are hastily sandwiched between dishes, laundry, lunch-packing, school drop-off and the workday (it’s a wonder working single moms shower at all, honestly), I had no schedule to rush off to, nothing to be inevitably late to and no reason to feel guilty or ashamed for happily standing under hot water for half an hour. Other than, you know, water waste and the environment. Damn it.
On my minimalist vacation, I had zero plans. I had to — I got to — face many small, strange situations and feelings that are entirely alien in my regular life: silence, solitude, boredom, ease, freedom, peace.
And guess what (this is the sixth and possibly most important reason to take a minimalist vacation)…
The effects extend way beyond the trip itself
All that solo soul-searching? You will definitely carry the aftereffects home with you. There’s nothing quite like a trip that’s based on packing/planning/paying/doing/using less to inspire you to take stock in your life and think about what you actually need going forward — you know, out of the tiny house and back into real life.
One thing’s for certain: You’ll never again forget to appreciate the value of a hair tie.