On Blue Jeans and Hiking Boots

The eternal debate on how to pack for a RTW trip

A quick search of RTW or backpacker packing tips will generate tons of hits about how (and what) to pack for long-term travel of the backpacking variety.

The most common piece of advice (and surely the most universally applicable and accurate) is TAKE LESS STUFF AND MORE MONEY.

No matter where you go, you can usually buy what you need—it may be an approximation, but you rarely go without. Very specific things become a commodity, such as preferred feminine products, or specific over-the-counter meds, or niche products like  melatonin sleeping supplements. But, in this modern global world, you can generally get all your needs met. Even if you’re off the beaten path, you’ll eventually travel through an airport with a “Western” drugstore, or stop off in a big city with a huge supermarket of some kind.

But that’s supplies; when it comes to packing clothes and gear, personal needs and preferences are an important consideration. Which brings us to the next most common packing tip on the web: DO NOT TAKE JEANS OR HIKING BOOTS.

Jeans are bulky and heavy. They take up too much space in your pack, they take forever to dry, and it’s too damn hot to wear them in most of the favoured locations of backpackers. And hiking boots are only necessary for actual hikers—those people who climb actual mountains and go caving and camp in the desert and stuff. Otherwise hiking boots are too bulky and heavy (much like jeans) and have no place on your packing list.

This is certainly the consensus I found when reading up on RTW preparation. Amidst all the posts outlining travel-specific clothes and gear, I did come across a few bloggers who argued that buying all new clothes just for your trip is silly and that you should pack the clothes you find comfortable. If you’re comfortable in jeans, then pack jeans.

I took this advice to heart. I’ve been travelling for over 100 days, and I can say with absolute certainty that my jeans and my hiking boots are the most important gear I packed. They are bulky, and heavy, and because I’m not good at packing light, I have to wear my hikers when I’m in transit. But, I’m glad I have these no-no items, and I’ll tell you why.

Great Wall of China near Beijing

They may not have been required, but it was great to have my hiking boots when I climbed The Great Wall of China. And it was nice to change out of my cargos and into my jeans for a night out in Beijing.

Jeans:

  1. Not everywhere I go is hot. Iceland in July and the UK in August are both places where jeans are completely appropriate. Beijing in October also calls for jeans, as does Mt. Emei in Sichuan province (where, by the way, I was glad I had packed my winter hat). Thermals under my cargos would have been a bit too much, but jeans in these climates were perfect.
  2. I don’t wear dresses or skirts generally, so even in hot climates, I use my jeans to take it up a notch. With a decent top, ballet flats, a scarf and a bit of jewelry, a pair of dark jeans can get me in the door of most of the places my budget will allow. My fashion standards are rather low, but in my mind, cargo pants simply won’t do for a casual night in the city. For this reason, my jeans were an absolute must in Reykjavik, London, Macau, Singapore, and various cities in China, and they even came in handy in Surat Thani—during the rainy season, the temp drops to a comfortable denim-appropriate level at night.
  3. I never really planned to ride a motorbike on the highway, but I’ve now taken two trips on highways in southern Thailand, and may find myself on a motorbike again. Jeans protect my legs from dust, bugs, and rocks, and will stand up much better against road rash than a pair of thin cargos.
Temple of Heaven in Beijing

I wore my jeans to the Temple of Heaven, and all over Beijing.

Hiking Boots:

  1. It’s not very logical to say only real hikers need actual hiking boots. I’m a very inexperienced hiker, so having boots makes me feel more secure for my tourist hiking. My boots support my feet and ankles much better than running shoes ever would, and they stand up to the elements.
  2. In Iceland, my hike across the lava fields to Thrihnukagigur totally kicked my butt, and it would not have been possible without my boots (and my boots have the scars to prove it). In Wales, I slogged through some muddy fields in the rain to see Roman ruins, and walked along cliffs overlooking the Bristol Channel—in both cases, sneakers would have sufficed, but having the boots was a nice bonus. Climbing the Great Wall called for hikers, as did my walk down the steps of Mt. Emei. And, any time I have to walk a long distance with my bags, having good foot support makes it easier on my feet and my knees (which aren’t getting any younger). They may be hot, but preventing fatigue and pain is well worth a little heat.
  3. Like my jeans, my boots were handy when I decided to become a biker chick. Going 80 km/h on a motorbike in Thailand can be done in flip flops or even hiking sandals, but it’s prudent to wear closed-toe shoes, and even more prudent to wear boots. Stubbing one’s toe while driving at speed could be fatal. And I speak from experience when I say that before you get the hang of it, using a kick starter in flip flops can have serious consequences!

There are many perfectly valid reasons for NOT packing blue jeans and hiking boots. But, I don’t regret packing these items for a second—even when I have to carry all my luggage through an busy train station in China. They’ve been extremely useful in making my travels more comfortable, and even more fun.

But, your mileage may vary. The moral of the story is don’t believe everything you read on travel blogs. Within reason, if you want it, pack it—but be prepared to toss it when it outlives its usefulness. I don’t intend to take my jeans much further—they won’t be useful for most of my time in India, and they’re a little too big anyway. So, I’ll buy a new pair when I need them!

UPDATE: I kept my jeans for much longer than I thought I would. They were very necessary in India in the winter months, and while I bought a better-fitting new pair in Dubai, I continued to wear my old pair until my last night in Italy. I didn’t bring the worn-out too-big jeans back to Canada, but I’ll be sure to pack a good pair of jeans on every future adventure.