Travel Tips : Sprawl and Sweep


This is all of our travel gear (more or less), packed up and ready to go hiking from Jogjakarta, Indonesia. This is how I like to see everything, accounted for and tidy.

We had a reservation for a much smaller room and got lucky!

We have stayed in a lot of hostels, hotels, campsites, side-of-the-roads, and air-bnbs. From all that time traveling, we’ve lost hardly a fraction of our gear. The notable exception to this was in Australia where we stayed for a month and violated one of our two main rules. That rule is sprawl. We don’t do it whenever we can avoid it. We’re natural sprawlers, myself more than Natalie, but it’s dangerous when you travel. Everything should be kept in a neat pile or two, or, even better, in the bag. We’ve fared the best when we take out only what we need and then keep it piled on top of the open backpacks. Especially when the room is large and inviting like this one in Vietnam, it can be so easy to let all our stuff sprawl out.

An off season deal that we found at the edge of Jogja, right near Prambanan.

It’s especially important not to spread stuff out when there are lots of nooks and crannies like this huge room we found in Indonesia. Lots of places for things to hide under make it that much easier to lose important pieces of gear. It’s ok to spread out temporarily of course, when we’re working with our gear or packing it ready for a hike, everything comes out, gets checked, and gets put back in. This sort of short operation is ok because things don’t sneak away and get forgotten three days later when its time to move again.



The easiest room to sweep, ever. A hostel in Taipei, Taiwan.

Why is not allowing sprawl so important? Because of our second trick – the sweep. Typically when doing a final check, many people resort to a list. They tick off each item, making sure it’s accounted for. When the list is all checked, everything is safe and packed and they have peace of mind. This works super well for a few pack-ups. I do it when I’m going camping as a matter of course. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for us on the road. We tried it briefly, in Mexico, and found it entirely too cumbersome. Checking off a list makes it hard to pack fast and go, and either we have to take out all our things to check them, or ‘check them out’ as we take them out, then check them back in later. It’s a hassle and we didn’t have the time.

Another easy room to check – Hong Kong.

Instead what we do is call a sweep every time we leave somewhere. This means we pack our bags as best we can, and then we go and check in corners, under tables, behind beds, and in the bathroom, for any and all items that have scurried to a back corner. We do a specific check for vital items like passports and some electronics, but outside of those, we don’t tick off by name. Since we made sure not to sprawl out terribly much, the sweep tactic catches the rare items that have escaped and puts them back in the bag. This has worked astoundingly well for us, except when we’ve let ourselves spread our gear all over the place.

All neat on the train. Is there a bag over our heads? It’s probably not coming with us.

The one part of travel this hasn’t worked super well for is trains. We usually are leaving them in a bit of a rush because we don’t know the route, recognize the stops, or understand the language, so our destination comes as a bit of a surprise. Our number one loss location is the overhead rack in trains, followed by the under-seat. We don’t seem to have the same issue in buses or airplanes, but we’ve lost more than one bag full of food, or a shirt, or some other goodie, to the rails. Luckily no catastrophes because we always make sure our main bags are with us, but any additional plastic or paper bags are fair game for the train gods.



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