October 5, 2015

Only What I Can Carry. {Photos of a Wanderer}

 Toby Israel: "Only What I Can Carry" 2

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015. Helsinki, Finland.

The afternoon sun is kissing the tops of the pines surrounding my friend’s house, and I am packing.

I’ve had an idea in my head for months now, and seeing as I’m in no hurry for once, this seems like the perfect opportunity to realize it.

I’ve been living out of my purple, 60-liter Osprey backpack for just under a year now. This is the second time I’ve done so (well, two/three years ago it was a green, 70 liter Gregory falling apart at the seams, but same idea), and I can pack in 10 minutes—15 tops—when needed.

Today, though, I take my time to fold my clothing into neat piles and gather every last small belonging into a compact square in the center of the floor.

I’m not exactly sure why, but taking stock seems important.

Toby Israel: "Only What I Can Carry" 5


The first time I went backpacking, it was a three-week trip to Europe after high school with my best friend, and I quickly discovered what too much weight feels like. A few years ago, I learned the incredible lightness that comes from dropping weight from my back as I traveled through Southeast Asia, then hitchhiked across Europe, shedding belongings as I went.

As a young woman after the war, my grandmother traveled through Europe to make her way to the U.S.—unable to return to Poland—carrying only a valise little bigger than a briefcase.

She still has that suitcase in her home in suburban Detroit.

I wonder how seeing it as a girl and imagining her story has impacted my perspective. I’m not sure. Sometimes I find myself considering what I would carry with me if I only had that suitcase. My laptop certainly wouldn’t make it in. Maybe some socks and underwear and a change of clothes, a notebook, one nice dress… One day I might actually try.

The more I travel and the longer I wander, the better I understand how much I need, and how much I am able to carry. (And still, always, it is too much.)

More and more, too, I recognize the difference between need and desire—the meaning of priorities. I don’t need even half of what I choose to carry with me. I do in fact need my laptop for work, and maybe a few changes of clothing and some warm layers.

But my practice poi? Small bag of jewelry? Pretty shirts, oversized headphones and red lipstick? Indulgences and whimsy—and I know it.

I should add that when I visit friends, sometimes I borrow sweatpants or other shoes, and I always stay places with kitchens so I don’t need any equipment. (When I go on camping trips, this pile looks entirely different.) I should clarify, too, that this is not everything I own—not even close—and I’m okay with that. Each time I visit the rest of my belongings, though, I give away or sell another heap.

What I keep—I recognize I keep out of attachment, not out of necessity.

Toby Israel: "Only What I Can Carry"

When I have gathered the contents of my current life into one space—colorful scarves and skirts, sturdy boots and extraneous tops all jumbled together—I am fortunate to have a talented friend and his tripod to help me bring this concept into reality.

It doesn’t look like much (to my surprise, as it feels like a lot on my back)—but that’s actually not the point.

I remove everything but my long skirt and hat, add the rest to the pile and sit down amongst my things. The point—I suppose—is this:

This is only what I can carry.

Some of it I need; some of it I want, but if it’s too much weight or doesn’t all fit, something has to go.

There is no space for sadness or regret in this backpack, either—that sh*t is heavy—and so it too must stay behind on the side of the road whenever I pack. This is only what I can carry, and the more I refine it, the lighter become.

This isn’t for everyone; hell, it may not always be for me. Nevertheless, this is a viable way to live, and—I believe—a powerful exercise in living simply.

The less I carry, the farther I can fly, and so I offer you these images in the hopes that, just maybe, you will want to try too.

Toby Israel: "Only What I Can Carry"

Toby Israel: "Only What I Can Carry" 1


What do you carry? I’d love to hear your stories, see your lists of “extras” (e.g. practice poi and heavy jewelry) or anything else you want to share!


Relephant Read:

To Love A Girl Who Wanders.


Author: Toby Israel

Photos: Jere Virta via Toby Israel

[Many thanks to the talented photographer, without whom this project would have been utterly impossible.]



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Taran Murray Jan 18, 2016 8:57am

I love this article. I am making a go at this lifestyle myself come this June. I have been planning/preparing for the past 6 months. I am certainly going to check out your blog! Any insight into the way of the nomad is valuble beyond words to me know. Although I am sure everything I need will find its way to me as I find my way to it. Such as this article for example! Thank you for writing your experience. 🙂 Happy travels!

Raj Oct 9, 2015 7:52pm

I started with one suitcase, over the years I accumulated stuff and moved to Canada and only to return to US with two suitcases. Yes accumulated again. I love to travel twice a year, but am not a light packer. If I am spending so much to travel why not make myself little bit comfortable? Yes I totally agree "There is no space for sadness or regret in this backpack, either—that sh*t is heavy". That is my mantra too.

KharaJade Oct 6, 2015 5:33am

I love this Toby. It's amazing that the job we do enables us to have this option. It's also amazing how we accumulate stuff when we stand still for very long. I moved to the UK with one (pretty heavy) bag, now I have a whole houseful…weird how that happened. I know from leaving it all behind when moving (again) though, that just about everything is kept out of attachment more than need. Functionality too, when you live in your own house, but mostly we can live without most stuff.

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Toby Israel

Toby Israel is a vagabond and storyteller with a metaphorical closet full of hats. She currently works as a creative facilitator, editor, and writer, and as Chief Storyteller at NuMundo. She is also a full-time lover of movement, food, and words. For the moment, she lives in Costa Rica. (She came for a master’s degree in Media, Peace, and Conflict Studies from the UN-mandated University for Peace—and stayed for the papaya, sunshine, and conscious community.) Share her journey on her website, and on FacebookInstagram and Twitter!