My Minimalist Story, Part 3: My Life in a Duffel Bag

duffelbag-mFor six weeks this summer, I lived my minimalist dream—residing in hotels, with all my possessions in a single duffel bag.

My husband and I purged almost all of our stuff, and sold our house at the end of July (see My Minimalist Story, Part 2: The Great Unraveling). However, we still had to wait several weeks for our visas to be processed before we could move to the UK. In the meantime, we “lived” in a series of hotels, as we wrapped up our old life and prepared for the new.

We each had pared down our things into one (large) duffel bag. Normally, we wouldn’t carry such unwieldy luggage, but it was the most cost-efficient way to transport our stuff across the ocean. The airline would carry our bags for free under our checked baggage allowance, whereas shipping the equivalent amount by post would have cost several hundred dollars.

[Now, I have to admit, I originally had packed a larger bag, in order to take full advantage of this free transport. The problem: I could barely lift it, let alone lug it any further than a few feet. It’s a humbling experience to have to physically carry everything you own; only then can you truly feel how much your belongings weigh on you. In the end, I had to purge some additional items, and trade down to a smaller, more manageable bag.]

In my bag, I’d arranged my possessions in packing cubes—one for pants, one for shirts, one for underwear, etc. I had an “office” cube that contained essential papers for work, our visas, and our move; a “kitchen” cube with my spork, titanium cup, tea bags, and power bars; and a “pharmacy” cube with toiletries, medicine, and other supplies. I arranged the packing cubes in stacks in my duffel bag, so that I could retrieve the appropriate one as easily as opening a drawer.

What a wonderful way to live! I had never before reached this level of organization—a place for everything, and everything in its place. It’s a principle I’d always tried to live by; but our house had too many nooks and crannies for things to hide. Some restless items always seemed to sneak out of their spots and roam around. Here, they stayed still by necessity—if they tried to make a break for it, they could very well be left behind. :-)

The afternoon of our closing, we moved into a highway EconoLodge. The tiny room was almost entirely bed, with only two feet on either side. Space was so tight, we had to stack our duffel bags on top of one another, just to leave a path to walk. It was certainly an abrupt change from the spacious, three bedroom house we had just left! But when you don’t have a lot of stuff, you don’t need a lot of space. We qualified for the hotel’s “long term” rate (7 days+), and actually got quite a kick out of imagining it our permanent residence.

It’s interesting how your perspective of “home” changes when you’re without one. We stayed in four different hotels during our transition, never remaining in any one longer than two weeks. And yet it was amazing how quickly we’d “settle in” to each new spot. Just a day or two after checking in, my husband and I would find ourselves saying things like “meet you at home later” or “are we staying home tonight?” Our home was simply wherever our stuff happened to be at the moment.

It made me think about our past apartments and houses—we’d never considered any of them permanent (even the one we’d just sold). In fact, prior to our previous house, we’d never lived anywhere longer than two years. In essence, they were all just temporary places where we’d kept our stuff, and met up at the end of the day. Places that provided shelter from the weather, and someplace safe to sleep at night. Was that the definition of home? And if you carried all your stuff with you, could you be at home anywhere?

After the Econolodge, we moved onto an Extended Stay efficiency, then flew to England, where we stayed in two more hotels while looking for a flat. I loved our mobility, and got a particular thrill every time we changed hotels. On the morning of checkout, we’d have everything packed and ready to go in a matter of minutes (versus the month it took us to move out of our house!). We never felt like we were stuck anywhere, and always had something “new” to look forward to.

At the airport, our luggage seemed equivalent to that of people going on a long holiday. Nobody would have guessed we were moving our worldly possessions across the globe—for all they knew, we were two tourists setting out on a nice vacation. Which, actually, is very much how we felt—because when you’re not loaded down with a houseful of stuff, life can feel like an extended vacation. :-)

34 comments to My Minimalist Story, Part 3: My Life in a Duffel Bag

  • Way cool, and I’m really looking forward to the next installment! What about food? Do you eat minimalist-ly as well?

  • miss minimalist

    Hi Michelle!

    During our time “on the road,” we ate rather minimally (to avoid going broke!). Breakfast was usually oatmeal in our travel cups, and lunch was some combination of bread, cheese, yogurt and fruit. In two of the hotel rooms, we had no cooking facilities; we ate dinner in restaurants, or picked up soup/salads/prepared meals at grocery stores. Our extended stay rooms had kitchenettes, so we were able to do some cooking.

    I’ll definitely be posting more about food in the future. I’m a big fan of simple, minimalist meals, and I’m intrigued by the concepts of “one pot cooking” and “one bowl eating.”

  • kris

    How I admire your being able to transport all your worldly belongings in a single, not-huge duffel bag!

    But for those who would like a larger duffel bag, may I suggest one with wheels. L.L. Bean has a great model that comes in many colors and costs less than $100. My daughter took one of these to London when she spent six months studying abroad. (In addition to clothes, bedding, and miscellaneous items, she also packed lots of shoes. Admittedly, she is not nearly as minimalist as you.)

    By the way, I also admire how organized your packing is.

    And, like Michelle, I’m looking forward to hearing more about food and other details.

  • nicole 86

    I am much impressed ! I understand now I have a long way to go.

  • miss minimalist

    Thanks for the comments!

    Kris, I agree, wheels would have been very helpful!

    nicole 86, my situation was a little extreme. You can certainly be a minimalist, even though you have more than a duffel bag! In fact, that’s what I’ll be blogging about in the near future, as I talk about settling into our new home.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Everett, miss minimalist. miss minimalist said: My Minimalist Story, Part 3 – My life in a duffel bag: http://bit.ly/kp7Fw [...]

  • [...] It had been my long-time dream to live in hotels, with nothing more than a single suitcase; and I was fortunate enough to realize it, for six weeks, while we moved from the US to the UK (see My Minimalist Story, Part 3: My Life in a Duffel Bag). [...]

  • [...] the thought. But then I realized that this is exactly how we lived for six weeks last summer (see My Minimalist Story, Part 3: My Life in a Duffel Bag). Most of our hotel rooms were no larger than this, and we were perfectly [...]

  • I’ve been practically living out of a backpack for over 2 years – I could never do it any other way now. Things really aren’t bad like people would expect – it’s liberating! The things I own don’t own me!

    Fantastic post, I know how you felt!

  • miss minimalist

    Wow, that’s impressive, Stuart! Have you been traveling these past 2 years? I know what you mean–once you get rid of everything, you become very, very reluctant to accumulate anything at all!

  • Back in grad school I could fit everything (including sleeping bag and pots for cooking) into a big suitcase and a carry-on. Books are the enemy though.

    The duffel bag approach is very normal if you ever go sailing.

  • miss minimalist

    ERE, that’s the life! I hear you about the books, though–my dream is to have a completely digital library someday.

  • Cari Cook

    Interesting series! I vacation sometimes in our state park ‘mini cabins’ and your story reminded me of those experiences. I have to take the minimalist approach when packing because I have a small car. They all have bunkbeds, an interior table and chairs, outdoor picnic table, fire pit, and barbeque grill. Some have a small refrigerator and microwave, some don’t. So I have to bring all the essentials for cooking without a stove/burners. It’s interesting to see how few things I really need to bring in order to survive. I have a crockpot that also has a griddle, so I can cook some things that way. Over the years I’ve developed a checklist so I don’t forget anything vital.

    I find myself reflecting on how refreshing it is not to have many ‘things’ around. Being out in the natural setting is in itself refreshing, and the absence of ‘stuff’ is relaxing. Having little to maintain or keep up with adds to the overall serenity of the location.

    • miss minimalist

      I agree, Cari! I think that’s why I’ve always loved to travel; it’s a relief to get away from the “stuff.” I can see how a natural setting would make it all the more serene. :-)

  • [...] we left ours behind when we moved to the UK (as most of you know, we moved with only two duffel bags). I wish we could find them here — they’d be perfect for our current [...]

  • Mike Edwards

    Live out of a rucksack.It’s all you need.Forget digitizing photos and information and use your memory.When your memory fades live in the moment.

  • Great story! I truly believe the reason people feel so relaxed on vacation is the minimum brought along and a hotel room is usually very sparsely furnished. It is easy on the eyes. Visual clutter is distracting and tiring.

    When I returned from a six month study abroad in France I returned to California with one small wheeeld bag and a backpack with all my university files, my laptop and my wonderful clothes and shoes I bought in France. Other travelers marveled at my simple and easy to carry luggage. Some people back home were bent out of shape that I wasn’t loaded down with souvenirs of my life for them…hmmm I suggested they go on a trip somewhere special themselves.

    Thanks for the helpful posts.

    • miss minimalist

      Hi Ellen! The freedom I felt while traveling definitely inspired me to pursue a minimalist lifestyle.

      I never bring back souvenirs, either; my friends and family get some digital photos and interesting stories. :-)

  • Patch

    That is my goal, Miss Mini, everything I own in one bag…or at least on wheels!

    I like your packing cube organization of the different household “room” contents in your one bag, but where do you get those packing “cubes” BTW? I must be living under a rock because they don’t ring a bell.

    My question: any tips for how one person + 3 cats can accomplish the everything we own in one bag? At the very least I would still require a 2nd “bag” — a carrier to safely transport the cats in…

  • [...] we are not in a panic. Why? Because we don’t have a lot of stuff. Yes, we now have more than the two duffel bags with which we moved last summer (it’s hard to live without any furniture, plates, pots and pans, and cleaning supplies). But the [...]

  • Rae

    When I was younger, my new husband and I moved to a new state with all we both had ever owned, including furniture (marble slab with a dissembled iron frame for table, and collapsible stools for chairs) inside and strapped on top of, a Volkswagon Beetle.
    It was great! It felt so right! So free! I dream about those days now…
    The last time we moved, it took a mega-long humongous moving trailer, one larger than the trailer that was our first home! Sigh. So sad.
    BUT! I’m working on slowly decluttering, with the help of blogs such as these. I’m not aiming high. I don’t feel at all pressured to hit a certain square foot number or whatever. And I appreciate that none of these great bloggers make you feel that way. Any minimizing is better than none. I would be just so happy to cut things in half: moving from 2k sq. ft to 1k is my present goal. Cutting debts in half, as well.
    We’ll see what life holds after that! When you open up space for it, life rushes in!

  • [...] My Minimalist Story, Part 3: My Life in a Duffel Bag: For six weeks this summer, I lived my minimalist dream—residing in hotels, with all my possessions in a single duffel bag. My husband and I purged almost all of our stuff, and sold our house at the end of July. However, we still had to wait several weeks for our visas to be processed before we could move to the UK. In the meantime, we “lived” in a series of hotels, as we wrapped up our old life and prepared for the new… {read more} [...]

  • Julie

    The summer of 2005 when I moved to Romania I did send a crate over with household goods. However, it did not ship from the US until after I had arrived in Romania and then was held up for quite a while in customs…so I knew going into it that I would be living out of my bags for at least a couple months (and it ended up being more like four).

    One checked bag was a rolling duffle bag (an awesome one with a big bottom zip-around pocket you can pack like a suitcase, the main duffle pocket, and a couple small outer pockets…as well as hidden backpack straps which came in handy for climbing on and off trains or carrying the bag up to my fifth floor walkup). The other checked bag was actually at one point allowable as a carry-on bag (before they started getting so strict on dimensions) if the expandable pocket was not expanded. I however, packed it out to its full capacity. It was also a rolling bag and also had the hidden backpack straps. Between the two bags I had a wool blanket, a set of twin sheets, an inflatable air mattress and manual pump, all the clothes/shoes/toiletries I would need for the summer, a few books, a journal, and several gallon ziplocks of small gifts to give to the Romanian teens I was going to be camp counselor for that summer.

    Besides my checked bags I had a small rolling briefcase as my carry-on (in it I had a complete change of clothes, shower necessities, a towel, and my laptop and camera). I had a large ugly purse I use specifically when flying as it is essentially one large pocket that I can fit a LOT of stuff into. I had a small travel pillow and a couple more books that I wrapped a small fleece throw around and tucked all into a regular sized pillowcase (you are allowed to carry on a pillow…or at least back then you were). I had a three season coat (not quite suitable for winter in Romania, but fine for all other seasons) tied around my waist as it was June in Atlanta when I flew out.

    Funny thing was that even as minimally as I packed my crate a lot of what I shipped over (once I finally got it) ended up not being needed. Only the dishes, a pot, a tea kettle, the winter clothing, and the toiletries got used…the rest just sat in my little storage room!!

  • I must admit I’m not down to a duffle bag; but I moved everything the kid and I own in a van trip, with a return trip to retrieve the seats and get Daughter’s guinea pig and my bike. Considering that we had a whole home and outbuilding of stuff and I had to move heaters and other essentials, I’m content. :)

    I could have used the travel cup and spork that you mention. Did you find that in a camping section? Also, do you have photos of the cubes you mention? I would love to see!

  • GreyQueen

    When I went travelling for several weeks in New Zealand, I had only one very small rolling suitcase which I checked but could have used as a carry-on bar that some of the contents were forbidden in the cabin. I did it for myself but what really struck me was the compliments I got everywhere from check-in staff to bus drivers to accomodation providers on its lightness and compactness. It was incredibly emotionally rewarding. It really brought it home to me how much energy (human and air fuel) is being expended lugging clutter around the planet.

  • Caroline

    Maybe you’ve mentioned it before, but how big is the duffle bag? I tried experimenting with fitting my life into a carry-on but so far I’m failing. Right now I’d need a HUGE duffle.

  • miss minimalist

    Thanks for the great comments!

    The duffle bag measures 12 x 12 x 24 inches. Here’s a link to the actual bag:
    http://www.outdoorproducts.com/Products/-/28

    The packing cubes are from REI: http://www.rei.com/product/796367

    I also purchased the travel cup and spork from REI (camping section).

    I hope that helps!

  • I’ve just discovered your blog – and I love this post. Last year we spent six weeks living in an “extended stay” hotel in the US, it was a suite-style room so we had plenty of space, but first we had to fit our belongings into a couple of suitcases. I loved it. We knew we were only making a temporary move, so we left a house full of furniture and “stuff” behind, but I didn’t miss most of it, and now I really do want to reduce my overall posessions. Not sure my husband feels quite the same way, though!

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